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Tartan: Designer & Design

This information has been compiled from a variety of sources, but the majority comes from Wikipedia and the
Scottish Tartans Authority.

Designer & Design

Tartan is most closely connected with the Highland clans of Scotland, although It is often mistakenly referred to as plaid. Plaide, from the Gaelic word for “blanket,” is used specifically in the Scottish context to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered (not pleated) and belted at the waist.

There are many tartans created and registered that hold specific significance to either  a family, clan, town, city, country; or military, employment, hobbies, religions, etc. However, there is also an increasing trend towards fashion tartans.  Fashion tartans (perhaps they should be called ‘checks’) are produced for visual appeal and may have no other significance other than a current colour trend.

The more meaningful tartans, like those listed previously, should be pleasing in appearance and have relevance to the client. These may include colours or numerical elements such as the number of lines or bands. These design approaches may bestow provenance on such tartans however the design results may not quite meet expectation.

  • Tartans use a minimum of  2 colours and a conventional maximum of 6

  • Tartans are now measured in threadcounts

  • There is typically an even number of threads with usually a minimum of 2 threads of any 1 colour

  • Tartans are as a rule (but not exclusively) symmetrical with the pattern (sett) repeating to create even blocks of colour.

  • The sett (design block) is customarily around 4 to 5 inches consisting of about 250 threads for a kilt-weight fabric.

  • Threadcounts give the proportions of each colour in the design and are commonly altered by weavers depending upon the final use for the tartan. The sett size could be reduced for ties and smaller articles, and increased for larger items.

  • Except for corporate tartans where companies may insist the colours closely follow the Pantone references of their logo, shades (but not colours) can differ between weavers.

The Manner of Pleats

Once a tartan pattern is designed and created in cloth, the design element isn’t finished.  When making a kilt, or any item involving pleats, there are the options of box pleats, knife pleats, and pleating ‘to the stripe’ or ‘to the sett’.

A kilt can be pleated with either box or knife pleats.  A knife pleat is a simple fold, while the box pleat is bulkier, consisting of two knife pleats back-to-back. Knife pleats are the most common in modern civilian kilts but regimental traditions vary.

‘Pleating to the stripe’, often called military pleating, means that the pleats are folded so that one particular line is centered on every pleat. Most military and pipe band kilts are made this way because it’s simpler and faster when sewing a kilt.  The pleated section of the kilt (the back and sides), appear different from the un-pleated front.  “Pleating to the sett’ means that the pleats are folded in such a way that the design (sett) of the tartan continues across the back of the kilt. This causes the pleated sections to have the same pattern as the un-pleated front.   Some people will try to tell you that kilts pleated to the stripe should only be worn by the military or bandsmen, and that kilts pleated to the sett are ‘civilian’ kilts.  Not so.

Some tartans look better pleated to the sett (sample on the left), and others don’t, based on the
colour play when put together. The choice is entirely up to you, so it is best to investigate these options prior to having something made.

A pleat is characterized by depth and width. The portion of the pleat that protrudes under the overlying pleat is the size or width, generally from about 1/2" to about 3/4".  The depth is the part of the pleat which is folded under the overlying pleat. The number of pleats used in making kilts depends upon how much material is to be used and upon the size of the sett.  Pleats across the fell are usually stitched down either by machine or by hand.

In Highland dancing, the kilt hugs the dancer's body from the waist down to the hipline and, from there, in response to the dancer's movements, it breaks sharply out. The way the kilt moves in response to the dance steps is an important part of the dance. If the pleats were not stitched down in this portion of the kilt, the action, or movement, would be quite different.

Colour, Myth & Magic

Many tartans come in a variety of colour versions – ancient, weathered, muted, etc.   This often gives the impression that a clan may have more tartans than it really does. Variations are achieved by using different colours to produce the same sett but in other shades within the same spectrum.  If one changes a colour in a tartan (blue to red) then you have a different tartan.  The hue of colour (from dark to light) can change and you still have the same tartan, just woven in different shades. It is important to clarify that the term used to describe the overall shades of a particular piece of material does not refer to the design and has no bearing on the antiquity of a pattern.

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes used until c.1855 could produce every colour and shade from light to dark depending on the type, quantity and quality of the dyestuff used and the desired effect.

Modern or Ordinary Colours

Early aniline or chemical dyes were a by-product of the coal and chemical industries, the first of which, Perkin’s Purple, was produced in 1856.  Perkin’s Purple was quickly followed by other chemical colours now commonly used. Although cheap and easy to use, these dyes did not have the versatility of natural dyes and the shades they produced were very strong and dark. Once the use of natural dyes ceased, aniline colours continued to be used until the invention of ‘Old Colours’.

Old, Ancient or Vegetable Colours

After WWII the woollen mills began to offer tartans in lighter shades, called “ancient”.  This was to represent what a piece of tartan, faded with age, might look like. Unfortunately they do not reflect the shades obtained from the natural dyes due to having a uniform paleness. The terms old or ancient have no bearing on the age of the particular pattern. The darker original colours were then called “modern”. 

Reproduction & Weathered Colours

These two ranges are used by different weavers for roughly the same colours.  Reproduction shades are where blues become slate blue; black a less intense charcoal black; red a deeper shade and green a sort of khaki. In the Weathered range the blue become grey and green becomes brown.

Muted Colours

These are of fairly recent origin; c. early 1970’s and are the best commercial match to the overall shades of natural dyes prior to 1855.

Adding to the confusion over colour, it depends on when and where cloth is woven.  You could assume that with modern technology, the shades could be regulated and controlled.  The truth however is that shades of tartan colours will vary from time to time, from mill to mill, and from one type of fabric to another...even if woven at the same mill!  Fibres (wools, silks, polyesters, etc) absorb and react to dye elements differently; the shades of colour for a tartan will vary according to the fibres and the dyestuffs available at the time.  

So there are a variety of circumstances that come into play from when a tartan pattern is created. The fibre chosen, the type of dye used, and personal interpretation of colour.  Then comes the creative process of what you make with it...!

Remember... choosing tartan comes down to personal choice, and now ancient doesn't mean old and modern doesn't mean new.  Wear the colours, and the pleats, you like in whatever colour palette you desire!