What are Universal Tartans?
Simply put, these are tartans that were designed to be worn by anyone anywhere regardless of clan affiliation. Some were designed for other reasons initially, such as the beautiful Holyrood tartan which was originally created for upholstery and drapes at Holyrood castle. Others, like 'Isle of Skye', were designed out of a desire to express a certain feeling, or to honor a specific place, time or thing. There are infinite reasons why someone might design a new tartan! While there are some common conventions, and etiquette, there is no rule that says you must only wear your clan's tartan. There is also no rule stating that you can't wear the tartan of another clan. We usually simply advise that if you wear a clan tartan that is not your own, you know the name and a little history of the clan so that you can wear it respectfully. That said, there are plenty of so-called universal tartans you can choose from if you don't want to wear a clan tartan, or don't have a clear connection to a Scottish clan. For instance, the Black Watch tartan has a military history dating back to the 18th century and as a "government sett" it is free for anyone to wear as is the famous Royal Stewart tartan.
What Makes a Tartan Design Good or Ugly?
Various estimates put the total number of tartans in the world at anywhere between 3,500 to 7,000. Something like 150 new designs appear every year, though only a tiny percentage of these ever get woven into cloth. Rocky Roeger, owner of USA Kilts, Inc. has personally designed over 100 new custom tartans. The kilt makers at USA Kilts work with both traditional and new tartans every day as they craft custom kilts for our clientele across the USA. So.....YES we have some opinions on what makes a good or a bad tartan design!
Joking aside, the nutshell answer is that a tartan design will become ugly when the creator either tries too hard, or doesn't try hard enough. A simple design with no variety of line thickness (thread counts) and only a few colors may turn out "blah". The Rob Roy tartan - the "lumberjack plaid" is the classic example.
Conversely, a tartan design that has too many lines or too many colors, or colors that clash, will turn out garish and irritating to look at. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so a tartan you hate may be one someone else loves. However, we feel a well-designed tartan is one that achieves balance -- with areas on interest and color intensity combined with "empty" portions that allow the eye to rest. This contrast, along with pleasing color combinations, is what makes a good tartan "pop".