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What is plaid versus tartans or checks? Bet you don't know all the differences!

What is plaid versus tartans or checks? Bet you don't know all the differences!
By Nick Fiddes

First, a confession. Before writing this article, even I was hardly aware of all the uses of the word plaid. Even in Scotland we get a wee bit muddled. So it's little surprise that dictionaries, reference sites, and even kilt authorities also get their definitions of plaid and tartan confused or just plain wrong. But it's really simple, as you'll see.

The key to understanding plaids is to know that it's an old Scottish word for blanket or wrap. This explains why the word plaid has three overlapping but different meanings:

  • plaid sometimes describes the crisscross pattern of tartans or similar; and
  • plaid can also mean the fabrics or cloth woven in those tartan-style patterns; and
  • for Scots the plaid is mostly a type of traditional garment worn in various styles, such as the belted plaid, fly plaid, arisaid plaid, shepherd's plaid, and piper's plaid or drummer's plaid.

The word plaid's use to describe a pattern also gets widely confused, again with three variations. But here too it's quite easy:

  • Plaids are any crisscross patterns of two or more colours;
  • Tartans are plaids with a name to identify a community;
  • Checks are plaids with a regular pattern, usually of only two colours.

Below we'll explain and illustrate these distinctions further. And we've created a separate article describing all the different kinds of plaid garment. So read on - soon you'll understand plaids better than 99% of most Scots!

History and origins of the word Plaid

Pronounced 'played', and sometimes spelled plaide, the word was first recorded in Scottish Gaelic about 1505-1512 in the sense of 'blanket'. Since then its usage has expanded to include any regular or irregular woven or printed pattern with intersecting bands or stripes running both horizontally and vertically, or any fabric with such a pattern.

Plaid can both be a noun describing the pattern or fabric itself, and a modifier - as in plaid suits, plaid skirts, plaid jackets, or plaid scarves, for example.

Plaid vs tartan vs check - different criss-cross patterns

The word plaid is most commonly used worldwide to describe a crisscross pattern. In North America, plaid and tartan are used more or less interchangeably. Meanwhile in Scotland some checks are recorded by the Scottish Register of Tartans.

The simplest way to disentangle and remember this is that the word plaid can describe almost any criss-cross pattern. Within the broad heading of plaids, tartan fabrics should always have a pattern with a recognised name or history, and are typically irregular. A tartan doesn't have to be formally registered, and someone's personal creation in CLAN Scotweb's online tartan designer is spiritually just as much a tartan. Check fabrics are also plaids but usually (not always) have a regular pattern. Also, while most tartans have multiple shades, checks are typically only two colours. Okay, a check might also have an overcheck of a different shade or some other detail, but you get the idea.

At CLAN Scotweb, we refer to plaid fabrics in a distinct way. We follow Scottish tradition which sees tartan as a pattern with a recognised name, associated with a clan, family, or other community. So plaid is useful as a term to identify all the other tartan-like patterns that have no such association or heritage.

Plaid as a synonym for tartan fabric or material

As well as describing the pattern of coloured lines, the word plaid is also commonly used to mean fabrics made with those patterns. In other words, plaid is both a kind of design that is woven into or printed onto materials, and also the cloth itself that can be turned into clothing or homewares.

In this sense it becomes an abstract noun. So when heading for the fabric store you'd talk about buying "some" plaid, not "a" plaid. But it's the cloth you're ordering, not the pattern. And while on the subject, let's just mention that the CLAN Scotweb fabric finder has by far the world's largest range of plaids, including of course tartans and checks.

Speaking of tartans, it's a curious fact that the meaning of this word too has shifted over the centuries. The Scottish plaid was traditionally woven from wool or a wool/linen mix, and it's this cloth or material that the word tartan first described. The culture was to weave in stripes of various colours using natural dyes. When done in both directions (on both the warp and weft) it produced a check. Each locality would have had its own favourite designs, even reflecting local plant-life for dyes. And this might be helpful to tell friends apart from foes in battle. That's what became known as tartan. But the formal system associating these tartans with clans came only later still, in the nineteenth century. And that's how we still think about tartan today.

It's a little ironic that the word tartan used to mean a material, but now mostly describes a pattern. But the word plaid originally meant a garment, but now means, oh, all sorts of things! At least now you should be clearer about all the ways the word is used.

Plaid as a garment or blanket

Purled fly plaid

The third meaning of the word plaid, and the primary usage in Scotland, is to describe a garment, usually part of a traditional costume. Examples include

  • the belted plaid
  • the fly plaid
  • the arisaid plaid
  • the shepherd's plaid
  • the piper's plaid and
  • the drummer's plaid.
It needs a full article of its own to explain about various plaid garments and how this traditional Scottish Hlghland cloak or wrap evolved. So you may like to read that one next.