When people think of the tartan now, most think of the very colourful pattern of the cloth of the Scottish Highlands. But originally the word "tartan" described the way the thread was woven to make the cloth: each thread passed over two threads then under two threads, and so on.... (Indeed, the original "tartan" was a very light, woollen material which couldn't really keep the wearer warm).

The oldest known piece of tartan is one that was found buried in the ground near Falkirk. It was found in a pot filled with over 1900 silver Roman coins and is thought to be about 1700 years old. It is quite different from many of the colourful tartans that we all know today. Its believed that it was made from the undyed wool - dark brown and light browny/green - of the Soay sheep which once inhabited Scotland and which still can be found on the island of St. Kilda.

What is the difference between a tartan and a check?

If you think of tartan as the pattern, then consider the Grand-Prix chequered flag - the check is printed in pure white and pure black squares. But in a tartan there is always a square where the two colours of thread cross, which is a speckled blend of the two colours.

The manufacture of cloth can be viewed as a number of stages

  • Gathering of the wool
  • Preparing the fibres for spinning
  • Spinning the wool into yarn
  • Dyeing of the wool
  • Weaving the thread into cloth
  • Waulking the Cloth