What can be learned from an old piece of cloth?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Here’s a photo of the piece of cloth that occupied my thoughts for most of the last year

As you can see, it’s a piece of tartan. A piece of ‘hard’ tartan, from which we can deduce it is fairly old. We can see very easily that it is woven with red, blue and green wool yarn (but the chestnut brown wool yarn is harder to see).

Threads taken from the tartan for dye analysis

We can see that the threads are very fine, and that they were handspun. We can see that single threads were used for the tartan (i.e. it wasn’t a yarn made from two or more strands plied together).

The next observation is that the brown is pretty unusual to find in a predominantly red-ground old tartan. Could this thread give us an indication of when and where this wool was spun, dyed and woven perhaps? Could any of the others?

This is where science starts to give us some information, in the form of dye analysis. Firstly, the dyestuffs were all natural (as opposed to synthetic) dyes. The red was dyed with American cochineal (most likely from Mexico), the blue was dyed with Saxon blue with a bit of madder and fustic thrown into the dye bath, the green was dyed with fustic and Saxon blue (aka Saxon green), and the brown is currently unknown. I had thought it might be a crottal (lichen) dye based on the colour, but apparently it’s not one that has been analysed before.

To me, this fact makes this piece of tartan incredibly intriguing; we have a rare dyestuff here, that is barely visible to the naked eye due to the weaving, so what does that tell us?

More to come on this soon…

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