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The Scottish Experiment

Tartan Production

THE TARTAN JOURNEY

The story of modern Scottish tartan begins in the bygone world of 18th Century regiments and clans. The name tartan comes from a Gaelic word meaning "across”, which eventually merged with the word braelic, meaning colorful fabric. Today we just refer to the unique cloth as tartan. This ancient colorful wool, although not always referred to as tartan, has made a journey from ancient Celtic culture to modern times to boast its proud patterns loudly from the modern wool upon which it is woven.The cultural and historic weight of the tartan cannot be restricted to the 13 or 16 ounces of cloth on which it is displayed! The story of Scottish tartan is fascinating and long. It begins on the backs of sheep and makes a unique journey which ends as beautiful yards of perfectly produced, amazingly colorful and diverse wool tartan.

           

Heirloom quality Scottish tartan begins with quality wool. It’s been this way for centuries. Although still a complex process, the industrial revolution helped make lighter work of the infamously tedious task of tartan cloth production. The first mechanical wool weaving machine was invented in 1539 and is known as a stocking frame; and it made wool weaving a much faster process.                                                                        

Even so, wool manufacturing was still a time consuming process which required many helpers and a lot of time. In Scotland, entire families would work at wool production. Modern technology and computing have carried the industry a long way from the antique machinery of the 16th Century and has once again changed the way that wool fabric is made. Although much easier than in previous times, tartan production is still a fragile process that requires meticulous attention to detail.

                                   

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

Despite technological advances in the textile industry, the bare bones of wool production are the same as they ever were. It begins with sheering. A master sheerer can sheer up to 200 sheep in a single day! Although there have been attempts at robotic advancement in this field, the vast majority of sheep sheering is done by humans. After being sheered, the 6-18 lbs of wool is kept together in a single piece. It then moves on to the grading phase of production where the fibers are sorted by texture, length and strength. After this the wool is scoured, or cleaned and its lanolin extracted to be used in dish soap, creams and various other products.

        

sheering sheep

WOOL IS NOT ALL CREATED EQUAL!

The type of fabric created by wool is determined by the density of the yarn threads being used in production. A sheep has different naturally occurring fibers that grow on different parts of its body. The shoulder hair for instance is known for being longer and finer. These finer hairs are often used for producing material used in scarves and stoles. Other fibers are used to make different weights of wool which end up as kilts made of either 10, 13 or 16 oz. The weight of the fabric is determined by the density of the yarn used. Wool manufacturing in general is very complicated, but the production of top quality, flawless tartan with its endless combinations of patterns, colors, vertical and horizontal stripes is especially difficult. Close inspection of high quality, Scottish-born tartan reveals the detail and care woven into each square centimeter.

Click to view Claymore Import's tartan cloth by the yard.

GOOD TIMES START WITH WINING AND DINING BUT GOOD TARTAN STARTS WITH WINDING AND DYEING!

From the vibrant dark blues and greens of modern tartans to the more sedated shades found in ancient and muted tartan patterns, it all begins as creamy white wool yarn otherwise known as ecru yarn (although the word ecru is derived from French and can apply to any naturally white or beige yarn fiber, authentic tartan is always made of wool). Once the wool fibers have been scoured (cleaned), sorted and made into yarn, it is then transported to the tartan manufacturer where the journey from a simple collection of beige fibers to historic tartan fabric begins.

In most modern wool production facilities, the ecru wool yarn is wound around special flexible cones in preparation of being saturated with whatever color the tartan requires. In the early days of tartan, berries and other naturally occurring dyes were used to color the wool yarn. This is why “ancient” tartans are similar to modern, with much less saturated and vibrant colors. Modern tartans are vibrant in a way that is exclusive to modern textile production. The availability of new dyes afford us much brighter colors than were once available. Wool is more exquisite than acrylic or cotton and requires dye with a specific pH balance. Not only does the dye need to be pH balanced, but it must remain consistent in its hue and vibrancy.

After the yarn has been dyed, it is then placed in a spin dryer. This removes much of the moisture from the freshly dyed wool. After this first pass, the freshly colored yarn is transferred into an oven where it is further dried at around 160 F. The trick here is not to dry it too much! Ideally, 10% of the moisture should remain when the wool is finished drying to keep it pliable for the next phases of production.


YOU'RE SERIOUSLY WARPED

The perpendicular patterns of tartan fabric tell a story rich in history, clan pride and tradition and it all starts with the warp. The warp consists of long pieces of yarn that are arranged in a specific order unique to the tartan for which it will be used. The warp is what determines the overall size of the finished fabric. This process, unlike nearly anything else in the textile industry, is still done by hand. The endless possibility of color combinations in a tartan make its warping more in depth than nearly any other fabric. The warp patterns can become extremely complex.

                 red warp

This meticulously tedious stage of tartan production is part of the reason that it can become very expensive to have a particular tartan made if it is not already in the que of production. These are referred to as “custom weaves” and require a significant amount of resources to create. However, even the most common tartans, such as Black Watch, require a carefully constructed warp before it can move on to the weaving stage of production.

WEAVING TRADITION BOTH LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY

Although the word weave is often used to describe the entire process of tartan fabric production, it is actually only a portion of the process. During this phase of production, yarn called the weft is interlaced with the threads in the warp to create the perpendicular pattern required to create the tartan. Essentially, these are the horizontal threads that are woven into the longer threads called the warp. The vernacular may sound foreign, but the essence of the process is relatively simple. Long threads are stretched out, and then other threads are woven perpendicularly. Modern tartan weavers have computers with special software which guide the process of the weave. Although, the process is much simpler than a hundred years ago, tartan manufacturing still requires great care and precision.wind the warp

Each individual warp thread is drawn through shafts on to the loom where they are knotted. This process is very sensitive. Every warp yarn must be accurately placed into the shafts so the weave can be properly executed. These shafts are mechanically synchronized to raise and lower the strands of warp so that the weft can be quickly and efficiently interlaced. The weft yarn is threaded in between the warp as one strand is raised and the other lowered. Each thread passes through a special loop shaped pin called a dropper. If a thread happens to break, the dropper through which the yarn is laced will do its job; it will drop and grind the loom to a halt. This gives the overseer of the loom an opportunity to fix the broken strand and continue with the weave.

                        Immediately after passing through the shafts, the loom reed pushes the yarn from the warp and the weft firmly together. This automated process is when the aesthetically recognizable tartan fabric is born. The loom, like the womb, gives birth. The loom however gives birth to different clan tartans and does so every day. The use of computers and machines helps this ancient process to be faster and more efficient without compromising the integrity of this ancient Scottish tradition.

                                           Tartan Loom



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