Why do colour shades of tartans vary?

The colour of tartan fabric can often vary (sometimes greatly) from what you expect compared to a previous sample of the ’same’ tartan, or what you’ve seen on a computer display. There are many reasons why this will always be so, some of which we explain below. But first, we need to question some expectations, if you are to enjoy your purchase to the full…

To the modern eye, bred to accept industrial uniformity, this variation can be unfamiliar and unsettling. We expect to ‘match’ our wardrobe with carefully coordinated colours, and naturally feel it is “wrong” to get two very different looking tartans supplied as the ’same’ product, perhaps even on different occasions from the same producer. But tartan has centuries of tradition, originating in an age before such standarised homogeneity.

The shades of most historic tartans were often barely defined - perhaps just as ‘blue’ for example. It is no exaggeration to say that blue might be woven in shades that we might perceive as as a deep purple by one weaver and as a sea green by another. Muted, weathered, or ancient shades often particularly surprise their recipients, so an ‘ancient red’ might well look orange, or ‘weathered green’ look brown, or ‘weathered blue’ seem grey. These are all correct, within tartan conventions.

An authentic weaver not only accepts this tradition of variation, but will positively value it. So they may choose even dramatically distinct colours on different occasions to weave the ’same’ sett [its criss-cross pattern, which actually defines a tartan]. The key is to accept this variation as a positive attribute of tartan, reflecting its historic traditions.

One of our tartan weaving specialists puts it this way: “Tartans are made up of two main ingredients namely the sett and the colours. The sett is the main one as if this is not correct a tartan can not be what it purports to be. Colour is secondary because in the old days these would vary with plants for dyeing used and there would be differences within one clan or family.”

Of course, today the larger weaving mills who produce much of their output for commercial purposes do strive to achieve a degree of standardisation with different batches of the same fabric (unlike smaller artisan producers who may not aim for this at all). But even today, just as with any textile such as wallpaper, one batch will never quite match another. Dyes vary and one batch of yarn can be significantly different to the next.

And different weaving mills may also have quite different ideas as to how a particular tartan should look. The ’same’ tartan from two different mills might be rich and vibrant from one, or subtle and subdued from the other, for example. Furthermore colour descriptions are relative, so a ‘dark’ or ‘light’ colour may be legitimately interpreted only as darker or lighter than others in the same range. Thus one weaver might end up using dominant shades of mid blues, and another weaver deep greens, to the average eye. This is normal, as each will be a reasonable interpretation of the historic definition within tartan conventions.

Also, the colour ’swatches’ we show on screen can never be accurate. Photography introduces inevitable variation. Or many of the tartans we display (especially for weave-to-order fabrics) are idealised computer generated images, whilst the weaver’s interpretation may involve quite different shades.

Remember too that computer monitors cannot display colours reliably. Just look at a range of television sets in the shop side by side, and see how the hues from different brands vary! If you are typical, you will never have had your monitor professionally calibrated. Even how long a monitor has been on for (and so how hot it is) can make a big difference. So can lighting conditions in your room.

Several of these factors may even overlap. So if you are making a major purchase such as a kilt in a stock fabric and you are concerned with exactly what the colours will be, perhaps to match other garments, we strongly advise that you order a fabric swatch from us in advance. We do charge for these, but the cost can be refunded against a larger order later on (see our Full Terms).

When no swatch is available (e.g. for a fabric that has to be woven to order) please enquire for further advice if you are concerned. We will try to give you as much indication as possible as to how actual colours may turn out. But if you commission our highly experienced weavers to produce a length, it is ultimately at your own risk, and we cannot accept responsibility if shades are not as you like or expect.

In particular, if you are hoping to match an existing garment or fabric as closely as possible, it is important that you send us at least an image, or ideally a sample, of the fabric prior to placing an order. This will enable us to instruct our weavers to find the closest yarn shades available.

So in the end, just remember, tartan colour variations should never be seen as a problem. Rather, they are testimony to your plaid’s historic authenticity!