Franklin Museum Director an Internationally Recognized Designer of Historic Tartans
When he was asked to design a tartan to honor a historic visit to Scotland last fall by Pope Benedict XVI, Matthew Newsome was just a little surprised, first and foremost because he isn’t even Scottish.
“I thought the fact that I wasn’t from Scotland was going to be a strike against me,” said Newsome. “If I were them, I would want someone born and raised in Scotland to do this design.”
On the contrary, Newsome, who is American, found that after his design was selected, the media and community of tartan makers in Scotland embraced its New World origin. “They were very proud of that. They saw it as international, cosmopolitan.” There was also the feeling that having an American designer of a tartan for a visit by a German Pope to the land of the Scots was somehow appropriate, explained Newsome, who is director of Franklin’s Scottish Tartans Museum.
The Pope’s visit last year coincided with the celebrations of St. Ninian’s Day on Sept. 16. St. Ninian is believed by many to be the first to have brought Christianity to the Scottish. Newsome, a practicing Catholic, said that he was “thrilled” to have been asked to design the official “Papal Visit Tartan.”
At a recent meeting of the Friends of the Scottish Tartans Museum organization, Newsome told the story of designing the St. Ninian tartan and his subsequent tour of Scotland's woolen mills. Before his presentation, Friends member Mike Swift noted that besides being an expert on tartans and Scottish Highland dress who has written several books on the subject, Newsome is also a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and serves as the Catholic campus minister at WCU.
It had been a longtime dream of Newsome’s to visit Scotland and tour the woolen mills where tartan cloth is manufactured, so that he could gain a more than academic understanding of the process. The year before the Pope’s visit, Newsome had been elected to the board of governors for the Scottish Tartans Authority as its only non-Scottish member. The Authority is the main advocacy group for promoting the heritage of tartan and Highland dress in Scotland.
The Scottish Tartans Authority was able to procure a grant from the Scottish government which would to cover expenses while Newsome was touring the country. He had only to figure out how to get there.
But then Newsome was asked to design the St. Ninian Tartan, and “all the stars seemed to align.” The Scottish Church wanted him to be able to attend the official launch of the tartan in advance of the Pope's visit, so they agreed to fly him over.
Before the Pope’s arrival, the tartan was presented to country’s political leaders at the Scottish Parliament on Sept. 9 by Cardinal Patrick O’Brien. Every parliamentarian received a tie or a scarf made with the tartan pattern.
During his tour, Newsome spent a week and a half on a whirlwind tour of Scotland visiting all of the major woolen mills of the country, including Ingles Buchan of Glasgow which wove the St. Ninian Tartan.
Newsome noted that, just as the fabric industry in the U.S., the woolen mills of Scotland are almost all in dire financial straits or are operating on bank capital. Even in Scotland, many tourists may purchase kilts and tartan items they believe to be authentically Scottish when in fact they were manufactured in Asia.
“Buy ‘Made in Scotland,’” Newsome implored those with an interest in Scottish textiles.
The St. Ninian Tartan displays a pattern of green, white, red and yellow on a field of blue. “The white line on blue field draws upon Scotland’s national colors,” explained Newsome, “while the green reflects the lichens growing on the stones of Whithorn in Galloway. It was there that Ninian first brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Scottish shores over 1,600 years ago. The white lines are also accompanied by a pair of red lines, reflecting the colors of Cardinal Newman’s crest. And finally, the thin yellow lines in the tartan, together with the white reflect the colors of the Vatican.”
Newsome, who has designed over 20 tartans for individuals, families and institutions, said that while he does not usually pay too much attention to the symbolism, for this special event, an attention to detail and tradition seemed apropos. He noted that each white line on the green contains exactly eight threads, one for each Catholic diocese in Scotland. In addition, there are 452 threads in the design from pivot to pivot, representing the number of Catholic parishes.
The St. Ninian Tartan generated a great deal of press in Scotland, especially after the Pope was seen wearing a scarf made of the tartan material during a tour of Edinburgh in the “Popemobile.” Even the L.A. Times featured a story on the issue, which mentioned both the museum and the town of Franklin. “It ended up being something that was very beneficial to the museum and the town, and I was very proud to be part of something like that,” said Newsome.