Tartans, Kilts, and Woven Wool Cloaks


I guess this topic goes here…?

I’ve been playing around with this wool cloak I got for my “Barbarians” themed birthday party last year. I researched what the classic Germanic Tribesman would have worn during the Roman Empire era (2000 years ago). I modeled it after this picture:

From this website: http://www.geocities.ws/reginheim/everydaylife.html

Here was my version:

While camping this summer I thought about wearing my buckskins, but they are so heavy and clammy (I need to wash and buff them up) and heavy. I wanted something warm and light, so I thought it would be fun to try out this piece of cloth on the trip. It worked so well! I love it. Just a punch of woolen plaid cloth folded up and pinned together. It’s still very “iron age” and probably more sedintary in nature, as it would require pastoralism and looms, but I think it’s a step in the direction I am heading. Wool is warm when wet, silent, fire-resistant, not very processed, and much more. The plaid acts as a camouflage, breaking up the outline of the body. It’s not wonder this was a popular clothing item for so long.

So I got to thinking about Tartans, or specific colors and their attributions to “clans”. I started to wonder if there were German Tartans. I did a little searching and I saw this:

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartan

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were only associated with either regions or districts, rather than any specific clan. This was because like other materials tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would usually only use the natural dyes available in that area, as chemical dye production was non-existent and transportation of other dye materials across long distances was prohibitively expensive.

The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, chosen by the wearer’s preference – in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they like in their clothing, without particular reference to propriety. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many patterns were created and artificially associated with Scottish clans, families, or institutions who were (or wished to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.[1] The Victorians’ penchant for ordered taxonomy and the new chemical dyes then available meant that the idea of specific patterns of bright colours, or ‘dress’ tartans could be created and applied to a faux-nostalgic view of Scottish history.

This makes me a little sad, but also kind of stoked. To think that the idea of Tartans as a sort of family Uniform or national identity just makes me think about how much Empire homogenizes everyone, and that all culture is super fluid and even on individuals. It makes me think about the natural dyes that are here where I live, and how those colors could shape our own personal tastes, yet unite us not in the same patterns, but in the natural colors we choose. What a way to connect people to a landbase. It seems so Sherlock Holmes. Being able to identify a person’s region based not on the designs of their clothes, but by the colors they had available.

I’m also fairly relieved I don’t have to find the “right” tartan for my region, but look into the plants that are growing in the regions of Germania where my origins lie and then maybe seek out similar plants here in the PNW. What a cool way to become interested in the plants of Europe.


Yep this jibes with all my research. There was definitely a domestication process going on there - those highlanders were too scary.


This is another big topic I don’t have time to fully address right now. But to summarize, tartan was worn by many Celtic tribes, and the notion that it was specific to highland Scotland is a totally modern distortion of history. (BTW bagpipes were never specific to Scotland either). Yes, it is all a whole silly bunch of “faux-nostalgia” for a fabricated version of so-called-history. (Alas, so many of our notions of history are equally faux-nostalgic I am certain!)

Cesar liked to emphasize the distinction between Celtics and Germanic tribes, but the more research I do, the more I see the connections between them–after all, they both grew out of the early Indo-European culture group.

If you look at (non Scottish) European folk costumes you will often still find tartan elements included, especially in the Woman’s costumes, and often in countries with Germanic or Baltic origins.

Tartan fabric has been around in Europe since the early days of woven fabric. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has written all kinds of good stuff about this…“Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times” is a good place to start.


Also https://www.academia.edu/1488040/Celtic_Clothing_During_the_Iron_Age-_A_Very_Broad_and_Generic_Approach


And I forgot to mention that early Scottish tartans were woven much narrower than they are today. To make a kilt, two lengths of cloth would be laid side by side to double the width, and painstakingly sewn together so the pattern matched perfectly at the join. This meant that it was possible to weave large pieces of of cloth with a much smaller loom.

There is other evidence of Europeans sewing even narrower strips of woven material together, to create clothing without needing a large loom. http://o.quizlet.com/o6Thx7PoKcdl2aFZDVAdRQ_m.jpg shows the fabric I read about in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s “The Mummies of Urumchi”, the strips of which I forget exactly, but might have been woven with a backstrap or tablet loom? But using a very portable weaving technology.


So what might be our local natural dye colors for clothing and/or woven cloth?

Brown- Acorns and/or black walnuts? Or natural brown wool?
Black- Acorns and/or black walnuts with the addition of naturally occurring iron oxide? Or natural black wool?
Yellow- Oregon grape root?

I guess the test is which colors work well with wool, and are very long lasting. With the amount of trouble involved in weaving a pattern, you wouldn’t want to waste all your labor by using delicate dyes.

It is interesting that most of the tartans we see these days are predominantly deep blue, green, or bright red–my guess is that those particular tartan designs caught on with the advent of synthetic dyes, (coincidentally, around about the same time as tartan-madness swept across England), as those colors are challenging to achieve with natural dyes, and natural versions would be very unlikely to be particularly light-fast or wash-fast.


Hi Goblin Girl,

Do you have a copy of Dyes from American Native Plants by Lynne Richards and Ronald J. Tyrl? It’s a great resource, although you’ll find that cultivated plants are necessary for really bright reds, blues, and greens (and there’s a reason that purple has long been considered a royal color). Yellows and oranges are the easiest colors to find. Do you know of any good natural mordants?