Viewing tartans online has long been problematic. Part of the problem has to do with the vagaries of tartan color. Letting alone the confusion that arises when people speak of modern, ancient, and weathered color schemes, different mills offer slightly different colors and variations of tartans, and you never knew what you might be looking at.
But most of the available online tartan web sites don't use photographs of actual woven tartan samples, but rather utilize computer generated images. This has advantages and disadvantages, the chief disadvantage being that the colors of the graphic file usually do not adequately reflect the depth and subtlety of woven cloth.
One of the best resources for finding a tartan image on line is the web site of the Scottish Tartans Authority, where you can browse the International Tartan Index. This site utilizes computer graphics for the tartan images, but the upside is that it contains well over 4000 tartans.
Most commercial tartan sites (those who show the tartans in an effort to sell them to you) are of course going to only show you the tartans they have readily available. The good thing about non-commercial sites, such as the STA's, is that they can show you a much wider variety of tartan samples. What if you want to see what the district tartan for Wagga Wagga, Australia, looks like, for instance? Think you'll find that one listed at your local Highland Dress retailer's web site?
However, there is another aspect to browsing for tartans on line. Not everyone is looking for strictly academic tartan information. Most people are looking for tartans to buy and wear, and they most definitely are interested in what the actual cloth they are purchasing will look like. Of course the best way to be certain that you get the tartan you want is to request a sample swatch from the mill. But this requires work and much patience. Not everyone wants to write to three different woolen mills requesting multiple tartan samples and then wait weeks for them to arrive in the post.
Most of the large tartan mills have web sites. If you go to Lochcarron's web site, for instance, you can view actual photographs of their tartan cloth. The same goes for Strathmore. However, while The House of Edgar lists all their available tartans, they only illustrate a representative few. (The same was true of Strathmore until recently -- maybe Edgar has plans to soon add tartan images to their site. Let's hope so.)
As the two mills I use most frequently when I order cloth for my kilts are Lochcarron and House of Edgar, and my clients had the ability to preview the Lochcarron cloth on line before purchasing, guess which mill got the most orders? Sometimes it is all about convenience.
However, I recently discovered a great online resource for viewing tartan cloth at www.TartanWeb.org. This web site is a branch of the ever-growing Viking Technology/Gaelic Themes conglomerate that is quickly becoming the dominant on-line supplier of Highland Dress, with dozens of retail web sites to their name. However, this is not a retail site per se. It seems to be mainly informational. And part of the information provided is the ability to quickly view and compare actual photographic samples of tartan cloth from many of the major woolen mills.
Go to their web site, and under "Quick Links" use the "Browse Tartans By Range" feature. There you can easily see all of Lochcarron's Strome cloth (16 oz premiere kilting weight). You can also see every House of Edgar range, including the Old & Rare and Irish County tartans. Stathmore's tartans are there, as well, along with Batleys and Marton Mills (I don't have personal experience with these latter two).
Not every tartan has a photograph (most do) and not all the photographs are perfect. But hey, it's much better than most similar sites. And if you are wondering whether you want your next kilt to be Lochcarron Strome cloth, Strathmore's W60, or perhaps Edgar's Regimental weight, then you can preview them all here within minutes. And while nothing can take the place of examining an actual sample cutting, this can help you at least cull the choices down before waiting weeks for that sample swatch to arrive!