One early autumn morning in 1996, as celebrated local handweaver Kati Reeder Meek was driving north on US-23 past a spot where the water nearly touches the road, the vision of natural beauty deeply impacted her.
"In the rising sun gulls stood out in relief against the blue greens of Lake Huron and white caps washed up to the sandy shore," Meek remembers. "A strip of red-top grass cut through the sand and the scene was set against a forest of cedar green. After a small prayer of thanks I made notes to keep the vision before me. By nightfall a design for handwoven cloth began to form."
Following days, weeks and months of sampling and refinement, a tartan (a plaid pattern with warp and weft identical) emerged that pleased her eye and brought favorable comments from others who saw the fabric.
"I wondered if the pattern might represent our entire state of Michigan," Reeder said. "I requested input from Scottish friends, Scottish organizations and weavers. There were suggestions for symbolism, most of the colors for which were already in my original design. Though the often-mentioned construction-barrel orange was rejected as visually unappealing, I incorporated a few suggestions, assigned tan to the Model T and the final design was approved by all interested parties."
Then began a campaign by many individuals and Scottish organizations to get the state legislature to pass a bill declaring the design for the official State of Michigan tartan. More than half the states, all the Canadian provinces, many businesses, universities, branches of the military, and even foreign countries have their own tartans.
In Lansing, after years of letters of support to legislators throughout the state, phone calls and assorted campaigns by friends, Scots and Scottish organizations, Meek received a phone call from the Detroit St. Andrews Society announcing that Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Lt. Gov. John Cherry had signed a "Certificate of Tribute" naming the pattern the Michigan Tartan.
The formal "Certificate of Tribute" was signed Nov. 2, 2010.
The colors of the tartan each symbolize aspects of the state: blue green for the Great Lakes and many inland lakes; deep green for Michigan's forests, rolling hills and meadows; tan for the sand dunes, Petoskey stones and roads for the Model T; white for snow, fruit blossoms, lake ice and summer clouds; and deep red for the autumn maples, cherries, apples and red-top grass.
"I am honored to be able to give this gift to citizens of my beloved state, but its becoming the official Michigan Tartan was entirely the work of dedicated people throughout the state," Meek said.
Tartan is traditionally a cloth of worsted wool, woven in a simple 2/2 twill (think blue jeans with the diagonal lines) with a stripe sequence of two or more colors. The stripe pattern of the warp is woven exactly the same in the weft, making a checkerboard or plaid. A tartan will also have a name, sometimes a family or clan name, sometimes a place name.
"Handweaving has been my passion since I was in my mid 20s," Meek said. "Though not my focus of formal study, my love of clothing design put me at my mother's treadle machine where she taught me dressmaking. The 4-H Club and two skilled grandmothers reinforced growing skills with cloth and thread."
In the late 1960s Meek set about mastering the art and craft of handweaving and though she began weaving art pieces for walls, she soon was focused on the engineering of cloth for function: for clothing, windows and upholstery.
The Scottish ancestry of Meek's piper-husband and herself brought her to study tartan weaving. Membership in Kalamazoo's Caledonian Scottish Society, Scottish Country Dance, and Highland dance study presented an opportunity to weave many family and regional tartans, including her own competition dancer's kilt in a re-design of the Angus District Tartan.
Meek is a member of the Northeast Michigan Weavers Guild, Michigan League of Handweavers, Complex Weavers International, Ontario Handweavers & Spinners and Scottish Tartans Authority.