We all know the iconic tartans of Scotland – each clan has their own, some tame, others quite wild. But this was not always the case.
In the days of Alba, checked patterns would certainly exist, and regional variations would depend on what natural dyes were available in certain areas. But the tartan system as it is today had not yet taken shape.
Fabric was an important part of Alban life, especially for women. In a subsistence culture where everything had to be made from scratch, every garment went through a long process that took up nearly all the women’s time. This is why so many of my female characters are involved in fabric making at some level.
First the fibres would be harvested – flax for linen shirts (or leines) and wool for the mantle (brat). The brat was worn somewhat like a cross between a kilt and a toga.
For linen, the flax would be beaten to remove the hard outer shell, then the fibres could be spun into thread. For wool, obviously the sheep were shorn. Then the women carded the wool with combs to align the fibres, and this, too, was spun into yarn.
Since this was before spinning wheels were invented, the women spun by hand. They would do this constantly, even while walking around. They stored the unspun fibres on a distaff – a long, straight stick that they could tuck under one arm, and they would feed out a thread onto the spindle, which was a smaller stick with a heavy, balanced round of metal or wood called a whorl. The spindle would go up and down a bit like a yo-yo as it twisted and collected the thread.
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Now the thread could be dyed. One of the most famous natural dyes from Scotland is woad – a yellow flower that produced a rich blue colour. This pigment was also used famously to paint and tattoo Celtic warriors (a la Braveheart). Other natural pigments they might have used came from lichens, berries, flowers, leaves, stems and roots that they could find nearby such as heather and dandelions.
Once the thread was dyed, the women used a simple frame loom to weave it. This was the process that produced the distinctive checked pattern of the later tartans, as the weavers formed colour patterns or “setts” in the warp and weft of the cloth.
The process wasn’t finished yet, though. In a wet climate like Scotland’s, waterproofing was very important. In the days long before wellies and macs, the only way to keep out the weather was through a technique called waulking. First the wool was cleansed from impurities using urine for its ammonia and scrubbed with fuller’s earth. Then it was rinsed and laid out and the fun part started. Women formed two seated lines with the fabric between their feet, and they pelted it to the rhythm of waulking songs, some of which can still be heard today. The pounding rubbed the fibres together until they became felted and virtually waterproof.
Highborn Albans might have embroidered and trimmed clothing, and decorative tapestries in their homes, but the average person lived in one or two sets of leine and brat at a time.
In a day and age where we can run out to the store and buy a new outfit, I can respect a culture of women who spent nearly all their time clothing their people. (And be thankful I don’t have to!) 🙂