I was beginning to see sheep not so much as flocks upon the hills but as fuzzy crewel knots embellishing yards of thick melton. Drystone “dykes,” all pockets of shadow amid stacks of rock, that bordered every field and lane evoked equally rough and tough Harris tweed. I saw gorse in bloom across rises of heather and wild thyme as the bright accent color in an earthy plaid. Amid the eddies of the Tweed River, swollen droplets mimicked the patterns in traditional wool shawls that once issued by the thousands from the Jacquard looms in the textile town of Paisley. In the gentler, more English landscape of the southern Borders region, the hills fittingly sported mantles of green as smooth and lush as cashmere.
At Lochcarron of Scotland, over the noise of machinery and through an accent showering my ears like plunking raindrops, I labored to understand Alwyn Johnston. With the depth of an expert and the buoyancy of a newbie, he guided me through every step of tartan production, from dyeing wool and threading looms with spun yarn to fringing scarves after they’d been snipped from yardage. When a red light atop a loom alerts workers to a flaw in weaving, the problem is fixed by hand. At the end of the process, the fabric is forwarded to darners in an adjacent room. Aided by wide light boxes, they spot any additional flaws and make them disappear by threading a single length of yarn through the fabric. This is quality control that can only be addressed by eagle eyes, steady hands, and cheery patience.
From the mill building churning with looms, Johnston and I crossed the drive to a quiet warehouse where row upon row of broad metal shelving presented brilliant bolts of fabric. Each of the 1,300 tartans Lochcarron makes is a meaningful interpretation of a grid, and every design is copyrighted and listed with the Scottish Register of Tartans, thereby reducing, according to the mission statement of its predecessor, the Scottish Tartans World Register, “the likelihood of trivialisation and muddle.” The names of the traditional clan tartans, available in ancient, modern, and weathered variations, read like the roll call of a regiment: Buchanan, Campbell, Duncan, Fraser, Ogilvie, Stewart, Urquhart, Wallace, and many, many Macs. More recent designs reflect the singular ability of tartan to mourn, honor, and celebrate: a New York City tartan (blue for the Hudson River, green for Central Park, two black lines for those lost on September 11); the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial tartan (light blue for her eyes, red heart for her charity work); a Model T Ford centenary tartan (mostly black, with red and gold accents.)
In Lochcarron’s design studio, tradition partners with trend. A banner of the woolen guild trumpets its symbol, a ram suspended by a ribbon (more familiar to Americans as Brooks Brothers’s logo), as well as its motto: We dye to live and live to die. Textile workers are a loyal and direct lot. Thick archival scrapbooks cataloguing historic stripe patterns rest on tables alongside racks holding the latest samples, from the conventional to the more avant-garde in colorway and weave, destined for fashion houses in Europe and Japan. The Japanese have taken to plaid as obsessively as they once adopted golf and whisky, commissioning tartans for everything from school uniforms to couture coats.
To correct for Scottish Jews having gone without their own tartan for three centuries, one that includes the blue and white of the Israeli flag debuted last year. This—a subtle visual with a larger backstory—is what passes for radical in Scotland, a land still remote and clannish enough for change to be not so much viewed with suspicion as seldom contemplated. I well remember my mother-in-law’s modest money-making schemes, fueled by her postwar residency in entrepreneurial America, being soundly squelched by her Glaswegian sister, “Ach, Elsie, you canna do that here.” Tradition hangs as tough in Scotland as the wooly willow to the rocky escarpments battered by high winds off the North Sea. It is the small country’s blessing and its curse. The reason some of the finest cashmere knitwear is produced in Scotland, even if the goat hair itself is imported from Mongolia, is that it’s made following labor-intensive methods practiced for decades. The reason the latest styles don’t typically come from Scotland is that Scottish cashmere is made following the patterns that have stood for decades: God dress the queen.