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Tartan / Kilts History and How to care for your kilts or Tartan

Tartan is undoubtedly one of the best-known cloths in the world. This has become the national costume of Scotland, commanding a unique place in its history, and in the hearts and minds of millions of Scots.

From the times of the early clansmen, right through to the traditions of the modern Highland regiments, the kilt, plaid, and tartan have established the most obvious costume of the Highlander. The dress today remains attractive, distinctive, colourful, and martial and a big trend in the fashion industry. It has come to be linked with the virtues of courage and hardiness, with love of an area and with the music, poetry, and culture of the Highlands. This was valid in the past and still holds true today.

However, many forms of tartan and Highland dress are controversial, and the subject is surrounded by several myths. Some authorities claim it derives from the IrishScots words tuar and tan - meaning 'colour' and 'district’. There is also a possibility that the word evolves from a Middle French word, tiretaine, which referred to a quality of material, of a thin, coarse linen and wool mixture, while an Old Spanish word of similar root, tartana, which means 'shiver', and refers to a very fine, quality cloth, has been proposed as yet another possible source. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning 'chequered', 'variegated' or 'speckled'. (Robert Louis Stevenson's hero in Kidnapped was called Allan Breck; 'Breck' meaning 'pockmarked'.)

In Scotland, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word 'tartan' was being widely used by English and Scots speakers for distinctively woven cloth coming out of the Highlands. In 1538, for example, King James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots, purchased 'three ells of Heland Tartan'. However, the name seems to have applied to a type and quality of cloth rather than to a design, a usage that had changed gradually by the eighteenth century.

Similarly, the original practice of making tartan from light rather than warm material was also steadily reversed over many generations. Nowadays, tartan is generally defined as a fabric woven in bands of coloured yarn that repeat in sequence, not only across the width but along the length of the cloth. A new hue is formed wherever bands of a different colour cross. It is sometimes said that modern Highland dress bears little relationship to that worn in the past, but this is not the case. All national costumes evolve over the centuries and what we see today in Scotland is a stylised version of an ancient attire.


Before storing your kilt, always be sure to air it thoroughly. Outside on a bright day is best.

If that is not an option, try hanging your kilt in the shower room (but not IN the shower) so it can absorb the steam. Fully dry your kilt in a warm, airy space before storing it away.

If storing your kilt long-term, we recommend a high-quality hanger that secures your kilt along the entire top. For short term storage, a steel kilt hanger will do the trick. Avoid sagging by always clipping the front and back of your kilt together.

Finally, wool likes to breathe so give your custom-made kilt plenty of space in your wardrobe.


Spills happen. If you spill something on your kilt, dab (do not rub) the spot with a clean, damp, lint-free cloth right away.

If that does not do the trick, your options depend on the type of kilt you have.

It is always best to look for the care label inside the Kilt. Its most likely to say DRY CLEAN ONLY or have a P symbol referring to dry-cleaning also.

At Farthings in Cambridge and Trumpington we have over 25 years of experience. Over the years we have cleaned many Kilts, all with fantastic results.

If you are unsure or just want some advice on you kilt or anything made from tartan, please don’t hesitate to give us a call or pop in to either of our shops in Cambridge or Trumpington and we would be more than happy to advise you on the best way to clean.


A kilt will rarely need ironing. Any light creases should drop out after hanging for a few days, especially if hung in a steamy atmosphere.

If you do feel your kilt needs ironing, here is what to do.

Be sure to use a cool iron on the reverse side of the fabric. Take care to align the pleats and don't let them fall off the ironing board. Consider enlisting the help of a pal to hold up your pleats.


Set your iron to steam and place the kilt's apron on the ironing board, with the underside facing you. Place an ironing cloth over the fabric to protect it, and lightly place the iron on the cloth. Do not iron back and forth - simply place the iron on the fabric, lift, and place on the next section.

Never iron wool on the right side as this can leave shiny marks on the wool. Your custom kilt's pleats rarely need pressing.

For best results, we at Farthings Dry Cleaners highly recommend waiting to have your kilt professionally dry cleaned by us to steam your pleats.


If temporarily transporting your kilt by car, hang your outfit in a protective carrier from the suit hook.

When travelling long distances, consider rolling your kilt to save space and minimise the need for ironing.


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