Designing a tartan: the story behind the "Volcano" tartan

Designing a tartan: the story behind the "Volcano" tartan
By Nick Fiddes

Here's an inspirational story if you're wondering about trying your own hand at tartan creation...

A few years ago Dr Carol Martin, a Canadian dentist, chanced upon the online Tartan Designer facility on our old web site. She thought she'd give it a go. And Carol quickly got hooked.

Very soon, she became one of our most prolific designers, creating a series of beautiful patterns from an endless stream of ideas. It didn't take long for her talent to be noticed, her creativity establishing a growing reputation. Carol has since designed tartans for prestigious parties including the Canadian Dental Association and the Office of the Governor General of Canada.

From left to right: Mr. Stephen Wallace, Secretary to the Former Governor General; Former Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David L. Johnston; Dr. Carol Martin; Dianne Quimby, weaver; Claire Boudreau, Chief Herald of Canada.

From left to right: Mr. Stephen Wallace, Secretary to the Former Governor General; Former Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David L. Johnston; Dr. Carol Martin; Dianne Quimby, weaver; Dr. Claire Boudreau, Chief Herald of Canada

Not long ago Carol produced another new design, called "Volcano" tartan. Its registration caught the eye of Barbara Tewksbury, one of the world's most famous kiltmakers, who happens also to be a professional geologist with an interest in volcanology. She approached Carol to ask about having it woven, and we hope soon also to bring you Barbara's own story of hand-sewing a kilt in this amazing design.

Meanwhile, we felt it would be fun to hear about the thought processes that went into this spectacular tartan's creation. So with no more ado, we're delighted to bring you some insights into this tartan design in Carol's own words:

The story behind the "Volcano" tartan

"Volcano" began in the wee hours of the night in the early spring of 2017. I had made up my mind a few weeks before to visit Iceland. Ever since knitting a Lopi Icelandic wool sweater in the 1980s, the yarn a birthday gift from my husband, I had wanted to visit this country.

Image: Peter Hartree https://www.flickr.com/photos/41812768@N07/15146259395/

Image: Peter Hartree

I must have been dreaming about the volcanic landscape when I woke up wondering, "had anyone ever designed a tartan called 'Volcano'?" I was sparked out of bed to search the Scottish Register of Tartans and discovered that, indeed, no tartan by this name existed.

How does one create a tartan design?


To me the most important element of a tartan is what I call meaning. By this I refer to the story or inspiration for the design. In my view, there has to be connectivity to something or to someone that we hold dear for a tartan to be born and come into being.

I have been inspired by people, groups, places and things. Sometimes I connect with the colours of my inspiration, sometimes to its form and sometimes to the way it makes me feel. I knew that "Volcano" had to be dramatic and explosive.


Now regarding colour; there had to be black and red for sure. I looked at photos of volcanoes and found an image that was perfect.

I saw the brilliant lava pouring out and down the black volcanic cone. I could almost feel the heat and hear the roar. I noticed the dark blue sky and the spatter and ash being ejected. I saw graduated shades of red to orange to yellow to white. Those had to be my colours.


Next I had to consider the pattern or sett of my tartan design. I realized that there had to be large areas of black and dark blue and smaller regions of red, orange, yellow and white. The sett of a tartan is made visually interesting by using a variety of widths of lines. With "Volcano", the variety of lines in my sett almost designed themselves. I felt that the red/orange/yellow/white section had to graduate from wider to narrower to show the movement of the erupting lava. The tiny red lines depict the molten lava being flung far and wide.

I liked the look of the mathematical progression: 6... 12... 18... 24... Therefore, I used those numbers in the threadcount of my pattern. Basalt has a hexagonal columnar form, therefore, sixes and their multiples had to figure in. Mathematics plays a huge part in my designs. I love numbers and pay a lot of attention to the numerical relationships of the width of the lines in my setts and their connectivity to my subject.


While it is true that most tartans are symmetrical, there are definite occasions for asymmetry. "Volcano" was one of them. The pyramidal shape of a volcano is exactly the same as a square cut diagonally in half. The way to create that effect in a tartan is by making the design asymmetrical.

However, asymmetrical designs can also have symmetrical sections. Because my inspiration came from the volcanoes of Iceland, I wanted to incorporate something that would represent Iceland. That came in the form of their national flag, and the narrow white/red/white stripe, is within itself, symmetrical.

icelandic flag on a boat

The white/red/white stripe also brought focus to the dark blue background and portrayed to me, the tiny volcanic island of Iceland situated in a huge expanse of North Atlantic ocean.


Next, I had to decide the size of the repeat of the sett. I felt that "Volcano" had to be larger than usual and, therefore, I played around with the size of the various sections until it looked pleasing to my eye. "Volcano" has 400 threads per repeat (the usual is 215 to 301 threads per repeat) and when woven in a medium weight wool, each repeat would be about 9.3 inches (the usual is 5" to 7").

Volcano tartan design

For many designs, the usual dimensions are a good guideline, but sometimes a grand subject requires a grand size to mirror it. This was one of those instances.

Time to contemplate

Lastly, there is a quality to any design which is difficult to quantify or to describe. Perhaps this comes down to the age-old question of "what is beauty?". I often have to leave a design and return to it later to look upon it with a fresh eye.

If I still like it after repeated visits and contemplations, then that is it. A little deliberate procrastination is a worthwhile component. Listen to your inner voice. A great tartan design will stand the test of time.


It is always fulfilling to see a design come to life when woven. The colours on a computer screen are slightly different from the dyed wool shades that are available.

It is important to obtain yarn samples from the mill before weaving a tartan so that the resulting fabric will be as close as possible to the envisioned design. I really think of tartans as a form of art.

When Dr. Barbara Tewksbury received the notice registration of "Volcano", she contacted me to ask if she could commission its weaving. To have Barb want to make kilts for her family from one of my designs was a very great honour for me. I immediately said "yes", and Barb contacted the artisan tartan mill of DC Dalgliesh.

Matching two of the colours in this tartan required some discussion: The dark blue and the orange. However, samples of yarn were obtained from Fiona and Katie at the mill and after careful consideration, Blue 20 and Red 90 turned out to be the correct choices.

Finally, the resultant "Volcano" tartan fabric was produced by skilful weavers to the great satisfaction and delight of everyone involved.

Volcano tartan bolt

Article submitted by Dr. Carol A. L. Martin
Designer of "Volcano" tartan on the Scottish Register of Tartans
December 9, 2018