These phrases have nothing to do with the age of the design or the tartan but refer to the colours used. Prior to the mid 19th Century wool was dyed using vegetable based dyes, these were not as colour fast and so colours tended to be more faint and ‘washed out’, then came synthetic dyes which allowed wool to be dyed with stronger and brighter colours that were more colourfast. ‘Ancient tartans attempt to reproduce the effect of vegetable dyes and ‘Modern’ colours the synthetic ones. You may also see the term ‘weathered’ or ‘muted’. this refers to reproducing the effect of sun bleaching on cloth to match, for example. fabric samples found during archeological research.
Previously the job of keeping a record of all registered Scottish tartans was done by the Scottish Tartans Authority. the STA still runs and works very closely with a new body which was set up a few years ago called the ‘Scottish Register of Tartans’ , The public register runs from the same building that looks after many other Scottish public records such as genealogy records etc and is part of the National Records of Scotland.
New tartan designs are submitted to the register for inclusion, once this is done the design is then protected since new designs are checked agains existing tartans to ensure they are not identical to other tartans.
Genuine Scottish tartan goes through a long and rigorous process before its ready to be used. Wool has to be dyed to exactly the right shades for the required design, there is almost no margin for error as a new run will have to exactly match the previous one. The prepared yarn is then carefully woven using industrial looms, though some weavers still exist using artisan and even hand looms.
once the cloth is woven it goes through several washing and pressing processes depending on its intended use, then every square inch of cloth is inspected for flaws which are painstakingly sewn back in by hand using invisible mending techniques. Thread ends and breaks are also sewn in this way.
Only after a thorough inspection does a bolt of new material leave the mill.
In a dress tartan the ‘ground’ colour (thats the main base colour of the tartan) is most often replaced by white. sometimes a yellow or bright red tartan is referred to as the dress tartan but normally its a totally different design. Dancer’s tartans are used specifically for dancers competing in highland games. they almost always have a white ground and mate just one or two other colours. Dancer’s tartans don’t normally have any connection with a clan though a few have names similar to clans.
Hunting tartans became popular during the victorian era when gentlemen would wear their kilts out stalking. Bright colours were thought to be too visible and so new designs were produced that used more earthy greens and dark blues.
Some surnames such as MacDonald can have many different tartans. However its easy to break down. Some tartans will be called ‘of’ such as MacDonald “OF” Clanranald. This pertains to a place where this branch of the clan originates so if you know which branch of the clan you are related to you can choose appropriately. As stated above, modern, ancient, dress and weathered are just variations of one design and hunting tartans are alternative designs. The choice is really down to personal taste or the style you want to create.