Thanks to popular culture from Braveheart to Outlander, most people have heard of Scottish tartans and have some notion of how important they are to Scottish heritage and culture. Scottish tweed shares some characteristics with its more famous cousin, but has its own distinct qualities and unique history tied to the people and lands of Scotland.
Originally, both tartans and tweeds were heavy, durable woolen cloths made and worn by Scots from Scottish wool. Both are made in patterns of repeating “checks,” or what most Americans would identify as a plaid pattern. But over the course of hundreds of years, their development split to create two modern fabrics that can be easily distinguished by the discerning eye.
Learning the difference between the two will earn you a nod of distinction among fans of both fashion and Scottish history.
A Brief History of Tartan
Of the two, tartans are older than tweeds. The earliest tartans were survival gear - a length of stiff woolen cloth several yards long called a “belted plaid” that would have been wrapped around the waist and over the shoulder to make a kilt. This type of kilt looked very different than modern kilts, which are pleated and of slightly different fabric composition.
Early tartans were primarily a Highland garment that provided warmth and protection, thanks to the durability and natural weatherproofing of the coarse woolen cloth. They would have been made on simple looms and dyed with local flora and fauna that matched the area where different communities and clans lived. The colors and patterns became interchangeable with clan identities.
In the wake of the Battle of Culloden, which ended the Jacobite rising of 1745, men were banned from wearing “Highland Dress” (meaning tartans and kilts) by the Dress Act of 1746. The law was repealed in 1782, and tartan fabric changed post-Industrial Revolution to become a worsted cloth that was softer than the earlier tartan fabric and its cousin, tweed. As tailoring became more popular, the kilt became a tailored garment with pleats.
Today, tartan kilts are considered a more ceremonial garment. Some in the Highlands still wear them as regular attire. (The freedom of a kilt makes them great for a rugby match or a ceili (dance)!) It’s much more common, however, for tartan kilts to be worn for weddings or other black tie events.
The patterns so unique to specific clans remain a significant point of pride with modern Scots. They are recorded in a registry of clan and family tartans maintained by Scottish history authorities. Others with an appreciation for tartans can even register their very own modern tartan patterns to honor their heritage.
A Brief History of Tweed
While tartans are tied more with clan history, tweeds are tied more with Scottish estates and more modern family identification and history. Although stiff, woolen cloth used for camouflage and outdoor gear has been seen throughout Scottish history, the term tweed came into use during the Industrial Revolution.
Tweed is defined by its durability and how it is made, as much as by its look. Tweeds are exceptionally durable, warm, and weatherproof thanks to coarse wool yarn made of two twisted strands that are then densely set into a heavy cloth. Tweed, like tartan, is made of a pattern of repeating checks. The patterns and colors of tweed were chosen to match the lands and estates on which they were used to provide natural camouflage while working the land.
Over time, the usage of tweed was adopted by celebrity Scotsman and the aristocracy and spread into more common usage. It became a popular choice for sportswear and suiting, and later for womenswear. Read our deeper history of tweed.
But Really… What’s the Difference Between Tartan and Tweed?
Fabric - In their modern incarnations, the main production difference between the two is that tweed is selectively produced from wool, while tartans can be produced with anything from wool to cotton to synthetics. Tweeds are also woolen - made of carded fibres - while modern tartans are worsted - made of combed fibres. This means that modern tartans tend to be softer than tweeds.
Look - While tweeds and tartans can both be described as plaid patterns, the way the fabrics are made tends to produce some differences in the look of those patterns. While they are both made of repeating “checks,” or squares of pattern, the tighter nature of tweed’s weave means tweed’s checks are smaller. Tartans have larger, more block patterns, while tweeds often have a finer window-pane check, where you have thin lines of color running across the check.
One nearly indiscernible production difference is that tweed wool is dyed in its raw state before being made into yarn, whereas in tartan production, they dye processed yarn instead. It wouldn’t seem to make an all-too-noticeable difference, but this subtle difference means that tweed color sets are much more difficult to match and create far greater subtlety of color variation. Tartan patterns arise from the weave pattern alone, with stacked fibers creating the sett.
*Sett - Noun. The specific, measured pattern of stripes in a tartan.
Use - Generally, tartans are not as well known for their use in high fashion and accessories as tweed is. Tartans are most often seen in kilts. They are deeply important to Scottish cultural history as they are highly associated with a free and independent Scotland, and are proudly worn by Scottish clans to this day.
The More You Know
Just to make it a little easier… here’s a list of a few facts to help you spot one over the other.
- Tweeds are sturdy, long lasting and are typically more coarse than tartans.
- Tweed patterns tend to be more subtle and intricate than tartans, both in pattern and color
- Kilts are generally made from tartans, not tweeds. Kilts can be made from tweed, or leather, or other fabrics - but more for fashion than for wide use in Scotland.
- Hunting and fishing jackets tend to be made from tweed because of the camouflage effect, as well as the fabric’s durability and weatherproofing.
- Fabric patterns that repeat in exact setts are tartan, not tweed.
J&L Tweeds with a Twist
We take great pride in our efforts to bring tweed to the forefront of today’s fashion. Our tweed products are uniquely designed with vibrant, raw-wool-dyed patterns and deliciously soft to the touch.
Providing you with bright and lively accessories in a range of bold and beautiful patterns, J&L’s modern tweeds are the perfect partner for the on-the-go life our customers live. We’re unlike any tweed on the market, and best of all, we have a lot of fun bringing you the incredible stories of our vendors and weavers.
We invite you to check out our exclusive, highly curated tweeds to see if you’re more of a tweed or tartan fashion buff. We think you’ll love what you find.