Striped tabby cats are also called mackerel tabbies in reference to the skin of the fish by the same name. This is the ancient type of tabby pattern close to the one we see in the ancestral wild cat species.
The word ‘tabby’ is thought to be derived from ‘Atabi’, type of silk manufactured in the Attabiah district of Baghdad, Iraq. This silk was exported to England in large quantities and it was noticed that the striped patterns on the silk were comparable to the markings on what British people called at the time, the Striped Cat or Tiger Cat. Cats with these coats were then referred to as ‘Tabbi’ cats which later evolved into the word tabby.
Dr Desmond Morris has some interesting thoughts about the evolution of the modern domestic tabby cat. We know that the tabby pattern has developed from the North African wildcat. When the early domesticated versions of this wild cat were brought to ancient Greece and Rome by Phoenician traders they spread across the European continent whereupon they crossbred with the local European wildcat.
This hybridisation, Dr Desmond Morris suggests, resulted in a more well-defined tabby pattern. He says the coat pattern of both the African and European wild cats is a suppressed or washed out tabby.
The first tabby pattern (there are now three) was the striped or mackerel tabby. Sometimes the lines break up into dashes or spots but the overall pattern is of tiger-like stripes. In the early development of domestic cats, this was the only tabby pattern but then a mutation took place. The blotched or classic tabby arrived. These markings are more complex.
It is believed that the classic or blotched tabby cats first came into existence in Britain during the Elizabethan era. The pattern was successful in that it was well liked. Morris suggests that this may have been because it was linked to an unusual level of aggressiveness or assertiveness. Or they were more healthy. This new pattern began to dominate. The striped tabby went into decline. Morris says that the classic tabby pattern is quite rare but his book, Cat World, was published in 1997. I would suggest that the classic tabby pattern is no more rare than the other two namely the striped and spotted tabby patterns amongst the cat breeds but he is correct with respect to random bred cats.
Although the tabby pattern is the original cat coat, today they represent only a part of the great spectrum of available patterns and colours in domestic and feral cats. However, generically speaking, all domestic cats are tabbies. If the tabby pattern does not show it is because it is masked by other non-tabby colours.
The dark tabby pattern is caused by the individual strands having darker and lighter stripes. When the dark areas of the hair strand are at the surface and clumped together in a certain way they form the overall coat pattern.
In addition to the usual mackerel, blotched and spotted tabby patterns, there are what is called a ticked tabby and a patched tabby. The Abyssinian cat wears the ticked tabby coat with very faint markings on a generally ticked coat. The patched tabby is a two tone tabby or tortoiseshell tabby sometimes called the Torbie.
Note about the pictures: I have deemed five of the six to be in the public domain as they have been widely circulated and on Pinterest. If I am wrong and you object, please tell me and I will remove the photo or provide a credit.