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Tartan Colors and Dyes

Some of the earliest references to the dress of the
Scottish people, the Celts and Picts, appear in the
writings of the poet Virgil, and later Roman authors. During attempts by the Romans to occupy Scotland, the Caledonian tribesmen who opposed them wore striped woollen cloaks, or blankets woven in several colours. these garments were draped over a shoulder and pinned, while underneath was a linen tunic shirt and sometimes a
pair of trews or breaches. Usually, however, the legs
were bare, giving rise to the later nickname for Scots
mercenaries ‘redshanks’. A piece of cloth found near the Antonine Wall, the third-century Roman barrier that ran from the Clyde to the Forth, is an example of this simple two-coloured check or tartan. It was made from the dark and light wool of the original goat-like sheep of Scotland.

The coarse wool from these animals, which were primarily kept for their milk, was plucked rather than shorn. It was then spun and, using the different natural wool colours, an intricately woven and striped cloth was produced. Originally, the Highlanders used only the natural shades of the sheeps’ wool black, brown or white in the designs of their tartan cloth. Later they employed a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colours. the birch tree, for instance, produced yellow; while the alder produced black or brown; heather gave orange; the crowberry or blaeberry, purple; the bramble, blue; and the flower of the tormentil, red. Urine was used as a source of ammonia to deepen and intensify colours and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a mordant (from the latin verb mordere, ‘to bite’) was added to make the dye permanent. The substance used was often the salt of alum, copper or chrome, and iron mordanting was obtained from black peat bogs.

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