Tartans for the 21st Century

The textile industry is older than pottery — perhaps even older than agriculture and stockbreeding. In the museums of Ürümchi, the windswept regional capital of Chinese Turkestan, lies a collection of ancient, tartan-clad mummies, some dating back as far as 4,000 years. These prehistoric people are not Asian but Caucasoid―tall and blond with thick beards and round eyes and wearing tartan leggings. What were they doing in the scorched sands of the Taklamakan Desert? Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s hypothesis is that, originating in the Caucasus region, the Celts parted company. One group headed east to Asia, while another headed west to Europe.

In pre-industrial times, Celts dyed their yarn using whatever materials were locally available, such as berries, roots and leaves. With the invention of chemical dyes, designers had a much wider palette to work with. Prince Albert, for example, introduced into his Balmoral tartan shades of granite strewn about his Scottish estate.

We’re taking tartan in a new direction. Our tartans do not represent nature, bloodlines or social classes. They represent the ideas, hopes and fears of global social movements championing liberal democratic values. It’s an ancient idea, reformulated for our time.