(centre) Vivienne Westwood Anglomania suit with jacket, waistcoat, kilt and trews,1993. Lochcarron (weaver) (background) Vestiarium Scoticum: Maide Dealbh, Jim Pattison, Glasgow 2015, Acrylic on canvas/wood. Jim Pattison is interested in the mathematical and graphical notation of tartans. Pattern sticks refer to the fictional idea that threads were wrapped around wooden sticks as a means of passing down precise patterns for setts.

Tartan: Unravelling the Exhibition

Tartan is the first major exhibition in Scotland in 30 years to focus solely on the iconic textile and pattern, with more than 300 objects illustrating tartan’s universal and enduring appeal with examples of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance and art.

Running until 14 January 2024, the exhibition presents a radical new look at a globally recognised design and brings together many different voices from around the world.

On until 14 January 2024

An image of a mannequin wearing am abstract tartan coat and shoes on a plinth

Tartan and The Grid

The grid is the fundamental structure of tartan and many textile traditions across the world. What makes a tartan unique? In this section, tartan’s grids are broken down into the principles of colour, pattern and proportion and explored as a set of rules used by artists and designers. Architectural plans, sculptures and prints displayed here show how the rules of tartan’s grids can even be translated from flat into other dimensions.

Since at least the early 1800s, precise colour-coded thread counts for tartans were inherited and passed down from weaver to weaver. Due to its distinctive intersecting grids and colours, whether strikingly simple repeated checks or complex asymmetrical patterns, whole patterns, or setts, can be reconstructed from the smallest fragments. These rules also offer limitless potential and endless variations are possible once the principles of tartan are understood.

Tartan’s boundless grids offer a toolkit of design principles for creativity, disruption and deconstruction.

Numerous plinths with tartan objects, such as dresses and shawls.

Innovating Tartan

Situated at the intersection of science, technology and innovation, tartan has been endlessly reinvented. Industrial revolutions have led to its multiplication, mass production and global domination. Today tartan is produced at varying scales from micro-mills to large factories, whether made-to-measure tailoring or for the high street.

Tartan has evolved with the technology of the times, making it a ubiquitous and affordable commodity. This has often coincided with pivotal historical events which increased the appetite for tartan. These included the raising of the Highland regiments in the wake of the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 and the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, organised by Sir Walter Scott. Enterprising individuals were quick to transfer tartan to the global marketplace, adapting to advances in production and changing consumer tastes. Tartan helped to sell an idea of ‘Scotland’ to the world.

From the 1850s, synthetic materials and dyes allowed tartan to be developed in ever-increasing colourways at lower cost. Tartan can now be found covering every surface that modern manufacturing allows, providing endless scope for makers and designers to explore the cutting edge of warp and weft. In 1861, tartan’s woven complexity helped innovative physicist James Clerk Maxwell to unlock important discoveries in colour imaging. Commercial media capitalised on tartan’s traditions using Highland dress to dazzle viewers in the very first filmed advertisement. Tartan continues to feature in the popular imagination today.

A collection of display cases featuring tartan fashion pieces, including dresses, jumpsuits and shawls.

Tartan and Identity

Tartan is a global textile which both unites and divides. From football’s tartan armies to school uniforms, tartan tribes are found everywhere. It is used to proclaim allegiance with kin, club, country, nation or state. Irrespective of geographic location, tartan binds communities connected by work, class and sexuality. Fashionable and flamboyant, tartan has found a home amongst music hall legends and drag royalty. Contemporary fashion actively celebrates tartan’s subcultural influences.

Since the earliest depictions of Gaels in Highland dress from the 1630s, tartan has become a symbol of nationhood with international appeal and reach. The textile has been adopted by those looking to assert their Scottish identity. Largely associated with Highland gentry, tartan has also been worn through the centuries by workers in the pits, in the fields or at sea, binding them together through labour and hardship.

As a reminder of home, tartan is also a pattern of the diaspora, connecting people across the world through shared ethnicity, heritage, sentimentality and clanship. Beyond borders it is a pattern adopted by communities who do not define themselves by privilege, inheritance, geography or nationality. As an expression of resistance to the status quo, tartan has been embraced by nonconformists, outsiders and by movements seeking to oppose unjust and exclusionary systems, categories and labels.

Choose your tartan tribe!

A bomber jacket hanging on an exhibition wall and a case with a collection of tartan dresses by Alexander McQueen

Tartan and Power

Tartan disrupts and conforms, adopted by both traditionalists and rebels alike. In war and peacetime, it has been a force used to push boundaries or maintain control, worn by both victors and martyrs with pride.

Tartan is an emblem of patriotic honour, regimental splendour and duty, from the first tartan uniforms designed in 1713, to the famous Black Watch Government sett. Tartan has been worn in nearly every British imperial campaign since the 1740s and was deployed as a powerful rallying call for men to fight in the First World War. Charles Edward Stuart, affectionally known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, associated the pattern ‘crammed with treason’ as a mark of rebellion during the Jacobite struggle for the British throne around 1745.

Tartan can be a weapon and a powerful psychological tool of control. In this section, rare textile fragments from turbulent times chart tartan’s role in building new nations, ideologies and empires. Recent research has revealed examples of tartan being ordered for enslaved people trafficked to Britain or to the plantations of North America and the Caribbean.

As a powerful and assertive textile which can push and pull at the establishment, tartan has been appropriated by those fighting for a cause, striving for power, acceptance and equality. Royalty has long understood tartan’s diplomatic potential. It has also become a symbol of resistance, ironically appealing to the punks and agitators who rebel against powerful regimes.

Whether in the public eye or worn secretly as a coded political message, tartan is a force with which to be reckoned.

A selection of display cases featuring various tartan objects.

Transcendental Tartan

Transcendental (adjective formal /.træn.sen’den.tl/): that which lies beyond the limitations of our physical experience and knowledge, also often described as supernatural or metaphysical.

Tartan has amassed a mythical and romantic status. The long contested and multilayered interpretations of its origins have made it difficult to unpick fact from fiction. It’s ambivalent nature makes it a rich source of inspiration for storytelling and speculation. Tartan’s epic ‘Scottish dreamscape’ has influenced the fantastical worlds of designers in film, fashion and interior design. It taps into the deepest hopes, dreams, fears and desires, allowing people to reimagine who they are or who they could be.

At the same time, tartan’s awesome, supernatural and talismanic qualities can heal, provide protection and comfort. From dancer Margaret Morris’ use of tartan in her pioneering Celtic Ballet to rugby legend Doddie Weir’s superhuman charitable efforts, tartan offers itself as a force for good. A tartanised Balmoral retreat offered Queen Victoria and her family a place of refuge and escape.

Tartan continues to fuel powerful and imaginative ideas in design and art. It offers a means of escape to a reimagined past or radical new futures free from society’s cultural baggage and earthly limits. These transcendental qualities are part of tartan’s enduring timelessness, making it so appealing to everyone enchanted by its spell.

Where will tartan take you?

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