Tartan Designer: design guidelines

A tartan, when woven, should of course be aesthetically pleasing. This introduces considerations such as colour balance, or complementarity of shading (i.e. avoiding clashes) and symmetry, balance, and proportionality.

Tartans are identified by the number of threads in each colour band when woven. This is the number that is adjusted in the ‘Arrange’ part of our Design tools, by entering numbers in the count boxes, or sliding a lever to the left or right. The minimum number of threads of any colour is usually two, and the number of threads are normally even-numbered for aesthetic and practical reasons.

Tartans use a minimum of two colours and ideally no more than six. More colours can be included (only from the Pro palette in the ‘Choose‘ area on the Design page) but there is a risk of the design becoming visually confused, and surcharges may apply due to the extra work for the weavers.

The sett (repeating pattern) is normally around 6 to 8 or 8.5 inches (c. 15-20cm). This averages around 250 threads when woven in a medium (c. 13oz) weight or heavy/regimental (c. 16-18oz) weight yarn for a kilt. This gives a pleasing result with good depth when a kilt is pleated ‘to sett’, with the pattern repeated to its rear. In a lighter weight (10-12oz) fabric such as many dance tartans, the sett might be as little as 5 inches (12cm) but many are six inches (15cm) or more in size.

A good rule of thumb is to think in terms of pairs of threads, and doubling. So aim for threadcounts such as 2, 8, or 32, rather than 13 or 27. This tends to give a pleasing result.

We use threadcounts for recording as this gives a convenient and consistent measure. However, it is actually the relative proportions of each colour in the design that defines the pattern (or sett), and is these proportions and not absolute sizes that constitutes a particular tartan. Weavers will alter threadcounts depending upon the yarn being used (e.g. silk is far finer than heavy weight wool so would require many more threads for the same size of woven sett). The intended use for the tartan might also make a difference, so for ties (for example) the sett size would be reduced, or it could be increased for larger items.

Tartans are almost always symmetrical, with the pattern (known as the ‘sett’) repeating in the same sequence both vertically or length-wise (the ‘warp’ on a weaving loom) and horizontally or width-wise (the ‘weft’ on a weaving loom). The colours visually mix into a composite shade where they cross. Our systems display all this automagically.

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