The iconic criss-cross patterns of tartan and plaid have found a prominent place in fashion, home design and decor. The geometric, versatile textile patterns have been undeniably popular across history and throughout the world, representing an authentic but fashionable style, with links back to Scottish culture.
You can find all types of tartan and plaid products – scarves, cushion covers, papers, flannel shirts… even dog collars! But what is difference between tartan and plaid? Are all tartans plaid? Are all plaids tartan? How can you tell them apart?
The history of tartans & plaids
Although today both terms are often used interchangeably, they stem from different roots and have different meanings. Yet to many, particularly to Americans, plaid and tartan are the same thing. The origin of the confusion is not unfounded; plaid and tartan have meddled together throughout centuries of history, hence their almost unavoidable assimilation. While there are similarities, there are distinct differences too:
To begin with it is important to note the similarities between tartans and plaids. Both contain horizontal and vertical stripes that intersect one another at a 90° angle, forming grid-like patterns across the textile. They are commonly made up of similar patterns and so are easy to misidentify. However—and this is where it gets a little bit complicated!— all tartans are plaids, but not all plaids are tartans. To get this straight, we will take a look at what these two terms really mean.
Tartan: One of the things that differentiates tartan from plaid is repetition. The lines that decorate tartans are replicated multiple times across the vertical and horizontal axes, which is not always true for plaid. In fact, there is usually a square measuring approximately 5-6 inches that is the basic building block that is repeated over and over, called the sett. For example, in the picture of the kilt, you can see how the fabric repeats itself over and over.
However, perhaps the most important difference between the two is that tartans are patterns that carry history, often associated with a historic Scottish clan, family or community. Different tartans carry different clan names and to be called a tartan, it must be officially recognised in Scotland, either historically or through a tartan registration process.
Plaid: Plaids on the other hand, comprise of all the remaining colourful criss-cross patterns that are not tartan. Patterns that are tartan-like in their pattern but are not associated to any clans or family and are not registered—and therefore not recognised as tartans— fall under the category of plaids. In a sense, all Scottish tartans could be considered plaids, but you should really call it a tartan if it is one. Most importantly though, not all plaids are tartans.
Chequered patterns fall under the category of plaids too, which usually just consist of two colours, like in gingham.
Other definitions of plaid
To add to the confusion, the word plaid has another meaning in Scotland. The one most modern-day Scottish folk will refer to describes a specific, rectangular piece of tartan worn over the left shoulder, as an accessory to Highland Dress, a traditional Scottish costume from the highlands and islands of Scotland as shown in the image above. The belted shoulder plaid is thought to have made an appearance from the 16th century onwards.
The question addressed in this article is not a simple one— even Scots can get confused! Nonetheless, they key message is that what is referred to as plaid in America, is often what would be described as tartan by the Scottish, and that even though both terms are widely understood, there is a subtle difference between the two.
What is your favourite tartan? Why not get your very own custom piece designed, like this Scotland map in Buchanan Ancient.