The Story of the Carolina Tartan

Tartan Colors
Tartan Fraud?

Tartan Colors

The coloration of tartans is often cause for confusion, but it need not be so.  Many have the perception that tartans must be produced in specific colors if they are to be the "real" tartan.  Such is not the case.  Think back when all tartan cloth was produced locally by hand.  Yarns would be dyed in small batches using recipes that may differ from region to region, or even person to person!  Specific hues would naturally vary.  The tartan weaving industry made use of standardized colors beginning in the 1760s.  But even once standard colors were introduced, these colors would only be standard within one mill.  Different mills would have their own color palettes, meaning tartan purchased from one supplier may vary in hue from that purchased elsewhere.  The same is still true today.  A tartan woven by Lochcarron of Scotland (one of the top producers of tartan cloth in Scotland) will vary somewhat from the same tartan woven by The House of Edgar or Strathmore (two other major tartan mills).  

To add to the confusion, today different color palettes are used within the same mill.  Sometime after WWII suppliers began offering cloth in so-called "ancient" colors.  These were lighter, faded tones meant to emulate what an old piece of tartan cloth might look like after years of fading.  The standard colors are now called "modern" in comparison.  Later still, mills introduced further color options, such as "muted" or "weathered" which are meant to represent different levels of fading or aging of the cloth. 

For more information on tartan colors, please read this article (external link).

The "formula" for the Carolina tartan is the thread count.  This is the sequence of letters and numbers giving the pattern to be followed as the cloth is woven.

R64 A28 K32 Y6 K6 W8 K8 R4 G56 R26 K8 R8 W4

The letters represent colors.  R = red, A = azure (light blue), K = black, W = white, G = green.  The numbers represent the numbers of threads used of that particular color.  The exact number of threads may be adjusted depending upon the size of the sett (pattern) one is trying to produce.  What is most important is the general ratio of the design.  The sequence here given represents a "half sett" with a full sett being created by repeating the sequence in reverse.

A "color strip" showing one full repeat of the tartan is shown below:

This same color sequence repeated in the warp and weft of the design creates the tartan pattern, as you can see in the following image.

The above image was computer generated using standard "flat" shades of green, red, azure blue, etc.  However, the Carolina tartan, like most tartans, has been produced by different woolen mills at different times, for different purposes.  The result is that one may see the Carolina tartan in various shades and tones.  This leads some people to ask which is the "correct" Carolina tartan.  The answer is that all of them are!  It does not matter what shades of green are used (for instance) so long as it is a green color.  If one substituted blue or red for the green, one would have a different tartan.  But different hues of the same color can be used and maintain the integrity of the tartan design.

So do not be surprised if you encounter the Carolina tartan in various shades.  Below are some of the colors in which the Carolina tartan has been produced (click on the images for larger versions).

This is taken from a hand woven sample by Peter MacDonald, designer of the Carolina tartan.  MacDonald is an expert in the colors used by early tartan weaving firm Wilsons of Bannockburn in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and produced the Carolina tartan in these colors.

This sample is from the original run of cloth, from the early 1980s, for the kilts worn by the Cross Creek Pipes & Drums.  It was presumably woven by D. C. Dalgliesh in Selkirk, Scotland.  It is in the "reproduction" or "weathered" colors.

This brown version of the Carolina tartan is worn by the NC State University Pipes & Drums.  It has been mistakenly referred to in some records as the "Raleigh Pipe Band tartan," but it is, in reality, the Carolina tartan woven in the weathered colors.

This sample is from the files of the Scottish Tartans Authority (external link).  It was woven by Lochcarron of Scotland, and is in the "ancient" colors.

This sample was also woven by Lochcarron of Scotland, and is in the standard, or "modern" colors. It was woven in 2006 for the Cross Creek Pipes and Drums, who wanted to replace their original kilts from the early 80s with a brighter version of the tartan.

This is a sample of the Carolina tartan woven in cotton cloth by Great Scot International (based in Charlotte, NC).

You can see by looking at these samples that tartans can be produced in a variety of hues.  Yet all of the samples above are truly the Carolina tartan.  On the other hand, if you have seen a tartan for the Carolinas that looks completely different than this design, it may not be the actual Carolina tartan at all!  Click here to read about Tartan Fraud...





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