How is Tartan Made?
Updated: Mar 28
Tartan. There's no doubting this iconic material's firm place in the rich history of Scotland's cultural landscape. It's also the root of Gunn & Grant's story, and as such we obsess over every detail of this special cloth that is stitched together to make our trews. So imagine our delight when we were given the opportunity to teach one of our newest recruits about how exactly tartan is made.
It was a normal Monday morning here at Gunn & Grant headquarters in Edinburgh, when Pam, midway through inspecting our latest pair of made to order tartan trews (Lindsay Modern), asked this particularly interesting question. Obviously, the initial reaction in the room was that we had failed Pam in relation to her clearly inadequate induction. A vow was made at that very moment to teach every newbie this frankly vital information!
Within 20 minutes, after a quick run to get snacks from the corner shop, we were in the car. We were taking a trip to one of our mills in the Borders region of Scotland to learn firsthand the entire process.
We were given a warm welcome by Robert, a veteran of 35 years in the textile industry. A period of time typical of this type of work, where the key skills involved are passed down through the generations and remain unchanged for decades.
We were duly taken to the workroom, a bustling hub of production and positive energy - tartan was definitely in safe hands - and our journey through the production of tartan began.
Now most of us know that tartan is a material that is woven in a crisscross . Before all that, though, the individual woollen yarns need to be dyed. But before dying comes winding. The neutral coloured yarn is wound up onto special cones and placed in the dyeing station.
"I've been dyeing to show you this" said Robert, looking particularly pleased with himself. Of course, Robert was now my best friend and a personal hero - we love a pun here at Gunn & Grant.
The great challenge for any mill is producing a cloth with a good consistency of colour. For many people, the colours of their own family or favourite tartan is very important, as they often represent something significant from the local landscape or history.
The yarn is submerged in water and the dye colours added. After draining, the yarn is spin dried for about 15 minutes and then transferred to an industrial drying oven. The temperature is kept at a very specific temperature of 160 degrees. Crucially the wool isn't dried completely. A certain degree of moisture is left to ensure the yarn is flexible enough for the rest of the production process.
After the fully dyed material has been wound up once again, it's ready for warping. This is the process of creating the actual pattern of the tartan. This also creates the final width of the fabric and the sett is repeated across.
The cones of wound up and dyed yarn is sequenced in colour order and then guided under tension onto the warp beam and knotted. After this it's lifted up and transferred on to another beam to start the weaving.
Now the tartan we all know and love can really start to come together. The weaving is where the warp yarn is interlaced with the weft, the weft being the yarn that goes under and over the warp to create the sett and the all familiar tartan patterns.
The loom used is set to a particular sequence for each tartan and it's shafts lift the warp yarns in the right order to allow for the weft yarns to go under and over. After this a special reed which is attached to the loom pushes the fabric together so it in effect bunches up and the distinctive patterns really start to emerge.
Robert led us away from the loom and over to a small group of hardworking people and a table scattered with fabric samples. We waited patiently for a darning pun but unfortunately it didn't materialise. "Gosh darn it" I would say one hour later in the car, but by then the moment had definitely gone.
These important people were the darners. They checked the quality of the finished tartan fabric. They're why you can be sure that every pair of Gunn & Grant trews has been made with the highest level of attentive craftsmanship.
The finished tartan then undergoes a variety of finishes and processes. A key one is washing to get rid of any residue such as lanolin and also to close up the fabric structure. The fabric can also be brushed or pressed. It all depends on its intended use. Of course, our favourite use is a beautiful pair of our made to order tartan trews!
And there we have it! I could tell Pam was suitably impressed, as well she should be. After a cup of tea and a digestive, Robert saw us out.
"Time to check out" Robert said, halfway down the corridor. I wasn't sure if this was a tartan based pun, and I was too afraid to ask.
Here's to Robert and the entire Scottish textile manufacturing industry.