GLASGOW — On a frigid evening in 2008, Paul Harris, editor of Britain’s Jewish Telegraph, and Clive Schmulian, a Scottish dentist, were sitting next to one another at a Jewish National Fund dinner in Glasgow. While drinking copious amounts of scotch whisky, the topic turned to tartans, a woolen cloth woven formed by offsetting lines and checks into various colorful patterns — and one of the most important symbols of Scotland and Scottish heritage.
“Why has there never been a Jewish tartan?” Harris asked, to which Schmulian simply replied, “What a great idea.”
The next morning the pair discussed the idea again and soon Schmulian hired Slanj Kilts to design Scotland’s first Jewish tartan, which would come to be known as the Shalom Tartan. The company supplied the dentist with three design mockups, which were then uploaded to the Jewish Telegraph website and voted on by the Scottish-English Jewish community.
“It caught people’s imagination,” Harris said. “We got thousands of votes. Our readers chose the tartan that was eventually registered [with the Scottish Register of Tartans] and made into kippot, scarves and ties — it’s a beautiful tartan.”
The fabric is comprised of two shades of blue, white and a thin hint of black. The blues are for the Scottish and Israeli flags, according to Brian Halley, co-owner of Slanj, who described the pattern as both subtle and masculine.
It was the first religious tartan Slanj ever designed, which threw Halley for a loop.
“Clive was really worried about not mixing linen and wool,” Halley recalled, referring to the Jewish prohibition known as shatnez.
At almost the same time, Scotland’s second Scottish-born rabbi, Mendel Jacobs, had a similar idea. (Born in Glasgow after the end of World War I, Rabbi Are Leib Rubinstein was rabbi of the Giffnock Synagogue for 18 years until his death in 1964.) Jacobs started designing his own tartan in an effort to provide less religious congregants a way to display their Jewish pride.
“They might not wear a kippah, but they’ll wear a tartan,” said Jacobs about why he wanted a Jewish tartan. “It ties together their Jewish heritage, ancestry and pride with their Scottish pride.”
According to the most recent census, there are about 5,800 Jews in Scotland. The country has long been acclaimed by its Jewish residents for being the only one in Europe where no Jew has been murdered for his religion. Today, there are eight synagogues in four Scottish cities.
Jacob’s Jewish Tartan was designed by Lochcarron Weavers. It is sewn with deep red for Shabbat wine; silver, representing the adornments of the Torah scroll; blue and white, reflecting the Scottish and Israeli flags; and gold for the Ark of the Covenant.
Jacobs asked Lochcarron Weavers to make standard kilts and ladies clothing, but also kippot, talitot, tallit bags and a handful of other Jewish items. Products are available at select Scottish and United Kingdom stores, at the Jewish Museum in New York and online at jewishtartan.com.
Jacobs has received orders from Jews in 15 countries.
A woven past
Tartans date back to the seventh century, according to Kirsty Franey, design and product development manager for Kinloch Anderson, a tartan design firm in Edinburgh. They were first known by their Gaelic name, “breacen,” meaning checkered or variegated. The word tartan itself comes from the French word tartaine, which refers to a particular kind of checked cloth.
Tartans originated in the Highlands and are often referred to as Highland dress, explained Deirdre Kinloch Anderson, owner of the firm.
Tartan patterns were originally a symbol of belonging to a particular Scottish family or clan and there were only a limited number of patterns. Clanship was the social system of Scotland whereby the essential link was kinship between the “chief” and the people of the clan, wrote Anderson in a company backgrounder.
In the 1800s, tartans increased in popularity when Queen Victoria visited Scotland, fell in love with the country and purchased Balmoral Castle. At her request, husband Prince Albert designed for Queen Victoria a personal tartan, which still exists today. Kinloch Anderson produces and holds this royal fabric, as well as that of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales.
Tartan fabrics are most commonly associated with kilts, a “very basic garment that requires neither tailoring nor frequent replacement,” according to an article on Scottish-history.com. Kilts are male attire.
Kilts measure around two meters wide and four to six meters tall, and are box or knife-pleated. They are worn with the lower edges reaching not lower than the center of the knee cap, and are secured by buckle and strap.
Franey said that today new tartans are increasingly designed and registered.
“We believe that tartan is a gift that Scotland has given the world,” said Franey. “Today, anyone can have their own family tartan.”
To design a family or company tartan, Franey first looks at the buyer’s individual heritage and his or her emotional connection to Scotland.
“We want each tartan to reflect the company’s or individual’s ethos and branding, but we also want to create a beautiful design with a rich story,” she explained, noting that every color and pattern in a tartan has meaning.
Franey recently created tartans for the Crown Prince of Bahrain, and made the Chinese Panda tartan for the Edinburgh Zoo. She also designed Dallas-native Joe Goldblatt’s tartan. The Goldblatts are the only Jewish family with a registered Scottish tartan.
Weaving a Story
Goldblatt began designing his family tartan in 2014 while recovering from major back surgery. Goldblatt moved to Scotland from Dallas, Texas, in 2007 to take up a teaching position at Queen Margaret University. The university tartan is predominantly blue, so Goldblatt’s tartan draws on that color.
To come up with the rest of his color scheme, the American had to answer what brought him to Scotland, and what he loves most about the country.
What he most loves about Scotland is Robert Burns (1759-1796), the author of “Auld Lang Syne.” Burns was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, where purple thistle, the national flower of Scotland, grows, so the tartan also contains the color purple.
Finally, Kinloch Anderson drew on his Jewish heritage through his family name, adding golden threads.
Kinloch Anderson provided Goldblatt with eight blue, purple and gold designs, which were put to a family vote. The final selection was made into the Goldblatt tartan, completed by Hanukkah 2014.
Kinloch Anderson wove enough fabric for Goldblatt and his wife, their three sons and daughter-in-laws, their grandchild and any future grand- and great-grandchildren. Goldblatt asked for kilts, waistcoats, shawls and neckties. His grandson Hamish will receive his first family kilt in a couple of years, at the age of 3.
Goldblatt said he wears his tartan dress for weddings and at civic events, as well as at bar and bat mitzvahs, though there are very few in Edinburgh, which only has about 1,000 Jews out of a city population for 480,000.
For Goldblatt, the tartan is the “most creative and authentic way of weaving our family into the long history of this great Scottish nation.”