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The Cultural Impact of Tartan Textiles

low section of people wearing kilts

Tartan is a textile that holds importance to Scottish ancient history and culture. The plaid pattern and woven fabric consist of repeating equidistant lines and stripes.

Tartan was once used to identify different Scottish families on the battlefield in the 18th century. Each family had its own unique tartan, especially Highland clans. The textile associates with Scottish pride and heritage.

Scotland - Scottish sporran and tartan kilt.
Scottish sporran and tartan kilt. (Photo via Envato Elements)

THE DARK HISTORY OF TARTAN

Typically seen on kilts and bagpipes, the tartan pattern holds value to Scottish culture. According to “The Mummies of Ürümchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, “the oldest known tartan textiles were discovered in a 3,000-year-old burial plot in Central Asia.”

However, the history of the textile has some darker aspects. Kathryn Campbell, a microbiology major at Colorado State University, is part Scottish. Her family continues their Scottish cultural legacy through their family’s unique tartan.

Campbell takes pride in her tartan decorations and loves to share about them.

“I’m proud of my culture,” she said in an interview, “but there is some dark history that comes with tartans.”


When Campbell was in high school, she had an interesting interaction that taught her a lot about her own culture. She had a teacher with the last name “MacEwen” who told her that her ancestors, with the last name “Campbell,” had, in fact, killed his entire family in the 18th century. Tartans were once used to distinguish clans and families from one another, especially in war.

“I was shocked to hear the dark history of my family’s pattern,” she says, “good thing my teacher was just joking around.”

I’m proud of my culture, but there is some dark history that comes with tartans.

TARTANS TODAY

Textiles in general have developed into an artistic tradition of many different cultures around the world.

Close up of a man in traditional Scottish attire is playing the traditional Scottish bagpipes
Close up of a man in traditional Scottish attire, playing bagpipes (Photo via Envato Elements)

Some people of Scottish heritage have a love-hate relationship with the romanticized symbols of tartans. However, some proudly wear them traditionally for events like weddings or holidays. Tartans hold value to Scotland’s culture of fashion and tradition. 

“What makes tartan is certain color arrangements,” says Patrice George, associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The stripes are the same vertical and horizontal. “It’s also going to be a symmetrical tartan if it’s from Scotland, and it would be wool.”

What makes tartan is certain color arrangements.

The patterns and aesthetics of Tartan are seen today in modern fashion, such as flannels and skirts. Despite its poor history, the textile is a big aspect of the culture and artistic value to the people of Scotland. It’s important that we as a generation keep it alive.

low section of people wearing kilts
low section of people wearing kilts
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