The same tartan may be woven with different colour-values.
‘Ancient’ colours are supposed to mimic the old natural dyes made from roots and other ‘natural’ sources. These were devised because the old knowledge wasn’t passed on, and some scholars don’t believe that the intensity of ‘modern’ colours could be achieved before the advent of chemical dyes.
‘Modern’ colours are so-named because they supposedly became possible only with the introduction of chemical dyes. See my ‘History’ page for more.
‘Reproduction’ or ‘Weathered’ (and sometimes called ‘Muted’ as well) colours are chosen to mimic the effect of long use – sort of like stone-washed jeans.
‘Dress’ tartans have a white background. These were originally known as ‘Arasaid’ tartan and were usually worn only by women.
‘Hunting’ tartans are generally of neutral colours such as brown and grey. They were basically camouflage for hiding in the bracken. No-one knew then that deer are colour-blind.
Some tartan salesmen will try to pitch some ‘Rob Roy’ mystique about hunting tartans, claiming that they were the choice of fugitives and outlaws. The truth is that rich men tended to wear brighter tartan than poor men, and were less likely to spend their time lurking about in the bushes fearing for their lives!