The Traditional Contemporary

Art history/ Historiography, Crafts, Handlooms, Art

The Traditional Contemporary: Tartan

Kaul, Ekta Khokhar

Tartans used to conjure up images of vibrant woolen checks, bagpipers in swinging kilts and highland rebels in my mind. Well, bagpipers in kilts really do play in the streets of Edinburgh. The Royal Mile - the cobbled street connecting the Holyrood House at one end, to the Edinburgh Castle at the other; teems with traditional kilt makers hobnobbing with the finest tartan and cashmere makers. Tartan kilts and sashes are worn with great pride on Robert Burns Night and other local festivals. It is not unusual to spot people clad in tartan skirts, pants or scarves on the streets, especially in the smaller towns. Tartan patterns sit prettily on shortbread boxes and Burberry’s perfume bottles. Fascinated by its deceptive simplicity and multitudinous interpretations, I embarked upon a research to understand the tartan.

Defined technically, tartan is a woolen or worsted fabric with stripes of various colours and widths intersecting each other at right angles, making a checked pattern. The characteristic pattern of an individual tartan is often described as a “sett”1. The word ‘tartan’ is said to have originated from the French term tiretaine which describe...

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