Say “tartan”, and most people think of Scotland – and of kilts. The word conjures up images of stalwart warriors, dressed in skirts as they charge the English soldiers of centuries long gone by. Not necessarily historically correct, and no matter just how dashing Mel Gibson looks in a kilt, I can assure you William Wallace never wore one. Never. The kilt, you see, is a 16th century invention, which is why all those books set in medieval Scotland and with a bare-breasted kilt-wearing gent on the cover are not only a tad cliché, they are also historically wrong. There: felt wonderful, to get that off my chest!
From what one can read on the internet, the combination of a tartan skirt and a hairy male knee is about as close to heaven as one can get, and while having nothing against kilt-wearing men – I find them both handsome and ruggedly male, as they walk about in their swinging garments with God knows what underneath – I do not necessarily consider hairy knees to be a “die-for” vision.
Neither here nor there, as this post is supposed to be about tartan – or plaid, as some Americans say. Tartan is not a Scottish invention. I know: quite a shock, isn’t it? Nor is it an Irish invention, which would otherwise be a logical conclusion, as the Scots originated in Ireland. Ancient Celts – from which both the Irish and, by association, the Scots, are descended – were known for their love of tartan, further borne out by the finds in Hallstatt, Austria. Hallstatt is believed to have been the heartland of the Celtic culture back in the 8th century B.C., and the prehistoric burial grounds, as well as the old salt mines, have turned up quite a number of bits and pieces in tartan – skilfully woven twill cloth with horizontal and vertical stripes of different colours.
For us modern people, it is difficult to fully comprehend the effort that went into making clothes in the past. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a plain weave or a twill weave, we never consider the work that has gone into the garments we so casually pull off the rack to wear, and we are incapable of darning and mending – well, beyond sewing on a button or two. (Hems, IMO, can be handled with staplers in a crisis, which is probably why my hubby has a hard time keeping a straight face when I say I’d like to learn to embroider. I would, actually.)
Anyway, our truly ancient forebears did not need to worry about hems or buttons. The cave dwellers used skins to cover themselves with, and given the general conditions in which they lived, this was a smart choice. But I bet you that already back then, someone was decorating their skins with whatever they could find, transforming a shapeless garment into an individual fashion statement.
Millennia rolled by, and people learnt to farm. In Egypt arose cultures where clothes were definitely of importance, but given the heat, the thinner the better, and so the Egyptians concentrated on linen and cotton, on light colours to reflect the glare of the sun. I am sure the skilled Egyptian weavers would now and then decorate the products from their looms with a contrasting line in red, or blue, but to go as far as a colourful tartan, that they did not.
To the north of Ancient Egypt, a nomadic culture still survived. On the large Eurasian steppe, that endless roll of grasslands that extends from modern day Ukraine to China, people had for generations lived as herdsmen, leading their flocks from one new grazing ground to the other. Belongings were transported in carts, entire tribes travelled together as their flocks moved south or west or east. Home was not a permanent residence, home was what you could carry with you, and so fabrics became important, the quality of your textiles shouting to the world just how successful you were.
Textiles don’t do well over time. They rot, they get degraded to rags, end up thrown in the fire. As a consequence, only rarely do we find any remnants of the clothes worn by people who died thousands of years ago – unless they were buried in very dry conditions, such as the Andean altiplano or the Tarim basin in Central Asia, home to the Taklamakan desert, the most arid place on earth. And it is to this rather inhospitable area that we must go to find the oldest known tartan specimens in the world.
For very many years, the Eurasian Steppe was considered a one-way street. The Huns, for example, came from the east and moved west, causing destructing and chaos as they went. Some centuries later, and it was Djingis Khan, leading his Mongol Horde from east to west. Only relatively recently have we begun to realise that some migrants went the other way, travelling from west to east. Some of them apparently ended up in the Tarim basin, developed a flourishing culture that survived for several centuries before they disappeared, floating off without leaving much of a trace – except for two things; documents in a now extinct language, and the Ürümchi mummies.
Some of these mummies are old. Very old, well over 3 000 years. They are also remarkably well-preserved, having been buried in almost perfect conditions – nice and dry. Astoundingly, the mummies seem to be Caucasian – very strange in Chinese Turkestan, where the predominant population is either Chinese or Mongol. But the mummies have blond hair, they are tall (very tall) and fair-skinned, they have high-bridged noses and round eyes. Interestingly enough, this tallies with descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, referring to a neighbouring people of great height, with fair or red hair and deep-set blue eyes. These Nordic hunks hung around in one form or other until somewhere midway through the first millennia A.D. They were called Tokharian.
Although the mummies have been found in various locations within the basin and vary in age, they all share one further common feature; the high quality of the woven textiles they were buried with, many of them with a tartan pattern. Even more intriguing, the tartan patterns uncovered in Chinese Turkestan resemble not only those of the old Hallstatt culture (bi-coloured twill weave or three coloured plain weave) but also those of Scottish tartans (multi-coloured twill), which are not found anywhere else. So, are we looking at very ancient Scottish emigrants? Or are these people the ancestors of present days Scots?
Let us take a step back. Tartan patterns are generally restricted to woollen textiles. To make wool, one needs sheep, an animal that was domesticated well over 8 000 years ago. At the time, the sheep wasn’t woolly, it was hairy, more like a goat. It was bred for its meat, but with the passing of years and a conscious breeding effort, the hairy sheep became a woolly one, so that about 4 000 B.C. we had our classical white fluffy animal (and those of you with a more than passing acquaintance with sheep will know that rarely are they fluffy – or white).
Suddenly, there was a lot of wool. Spindles were invented, and looms were adapted to handle this new material, rather different from flaxen thread/yarn. Plain weave was replaced – or complemented – with twill weave (in which two threads of the warp are looped together by the weft, with an offset between the rows, thereby creating a diagonal pattern that runs through the fabric) Twill had the advantage of allowing for a tighter weave, thereby making the resulting cloth warmer. All of this leading-edge development – from flax to wool, from plain weave to twill – seems to have happened in present day Turkey or thereabouts, a remnant of twill having been found in a 3 000 B.C. grave in central Turkey.
At the time, Anatolia and the Caucasus was a veritable melting pot for humanity. Innovations were made at an impressive speed: domesticated horses, carts, woolly sheep, woollen textiles. All these novelties were shared between the peoples, probably using some sort of proto Indo-European language. And then, for whatever reasons – maybe they fell out, or maybe the grazing became restricted, or maybe some of them just wanted to see the world – began the exodus from the Caucasian heartlands, with some going east while the majority went west.
Our Ürümchi mummies – or their ancestors – obviously went east, while others of their tribe chose to go the other way. Maybe they went to Hallstatt, Austria and the salt mines, where they would develop into the people we call the Celts. Our voyagers on the eastern road carried with them an Indo-European language. (As late as in the 6th century A.D., a people in the Tarim basin spoke Tokharian, an Indo-European language that has a clear resemblance to the Celtic languages – sort of wow, IMO) Those long-dead travellers also took along a love for their tribal tartan patterns, a love so strong that it would survive the long, slow trek across the endless Eurasian steppe. While none of this is conclusive evidence, I believe the mummies of Ürümchi were, in fact, a side-branch on the Celtic tree.
So where does tartan comes from? I guess it sprang out of love for colour and textile, a silent ode to the world that surrounded the weaver. Maybe she had her eyes captured by the spectacular colour of a winter sunrise, when the muted purplish grey of the receding night is shot through with strands of glowing pink. Maybe she was entranced by the bright green of new leaf, against a backdrop of brown rocks. Or maybe she was trying to capture all those elusive colours that live in the wind. Or maybe she was daydreaming of a time when good-looking hunks would swathe themselves in colourful tartan and little else.
These days, all that remains of the people who went east are those desiccated mummies, elegant, tall people who towered well over six feet, men and women alike. And those that went west, well they’re just as dead, just as gone – but the tartan they brought with them from the Caucasus is still going strong. Imagine that: something as fragile as a fabric surviving through centuries of time. I guess we can conclude multi-coloured stripes just never go out of fashion, right?
If you want to read more about the Ürümchi mummies and their fascinating textiles, I strongly recommend “The Mummies of Ürümchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors bloig, albeit it has been modified)