First, a correction of terminology. This web page ought to be called “Tartan: Not Just for Celts”, because the proper terminology for cloth woven in multi-colored checks is really ‘tartan’, not ‘plaid’. The word ‘plaid’ means ‘pleated’ and really referred (in the 18th century, at least) to the pleats of the great kilt. The term then became applied to the fabric itself, and in modern times is used to refer to the weave of the fabric. So:
Tartan It’s Not Just For Celts!
First, let’s start off with a speculation. Simple checked fabric is really easy to come up with, and cultures around the world from Japan to the Andes have woven fabric in checks. It’s a small step from a simple check to a multi-colored tartan, and therefore it’s not surprising that tartan-type weaves have arisen in multiple locations around the world. Think of it like pottery: people have developed pottery around the world, in multiple locations and many different styles, but somehow most pots wind up being round and holding things. Does that mean that all pots were inspired by the same root culture? No; they’re following the function for which they were designed. Likewise, checks: you start off with two colors of yarn, and set up a warp using alternating segments of yarn. Then you weave a fabric alternating the colors of yarn. Voila, a checked fabric. This also happens to be a very convenient way to use multiple dye lots of yarn that don’t quite match. So maybe tartan fabric arose in response to the need to use up non-matching dye lots of yarn. Or maybe the people who made it just liked the way it looked. Whatever the case, many different ancient peoples wore checked or tartan fabrics.
The Mummies of Urumchi — much attention has been focused on these finds from the Taklamakan Desert in western China. The mummies appear to be Tocharians — a group that split away from the main group of Indo-Europeans around ___ (3000?) BC. They travelled east and settled in the Taklamakan Desert. They are not Celts — their language shares features common to all Indo-European languages, but if you dumped a Tocharian in Iron Age Gaul, he or she wouldn’t have been understood by the Gauls. By way of example, German is also an Indo-European language, but German and Gaelic aren’t mutually intelligible either.
One remarkable thing about the Urumchi mummies (in addition to their red hair and blue eyes) is that they wove wonderful tartan cloth — cloth that could easily pass for Scottish tartan. This has led some people to speculate that they were Celts. However, there’s no justification for this belief — it seems to be based merely on overactive imaginations and an exaggerated sense of Scottish nationalism, since the Urumchi settlement occurred ___ years before the earliest Celtic settlements. The timing, linguistics and geography are all wrong.
The Scythians, another Indo-European group also wore checked fabrics. They were a fierce semi-nomadic people living in what is now modern ____.
Viking checked fabric: the Thorsberg mantle, found in a bog in Norway, dates from 200 AD. This rectangular, fringed cloak was woven on a warp-weighted loom with card-woven borders, of cream-colored wool with a dark sky-blue check.
Medieval Italy — in the sixth picture down (St. Martin is Knighted, 1312-17 AD), several men are wearing tunics made of checked material.
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Clothing of the Ancient Celts – Copyright 1997, M. E. Riley and 2002, Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved.