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  1. #1
    Join Date
    21st February 05
    Location
    Reading, Pa
    Posts
    15

    Question Tartan vs. Plaid

    Ok, so the other day I was asked, "What is the difference between tartan and plaid?" I didn't really know how to answer it. Any ideas guys would be great. Thanks!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    27th June 05
    Location
    Altoona/State College, PA
    Posts
    504
    Well, within the scope of Highland dress, a plaid is a piece of clothing, not a pattern, as it is understood today. A tartan, however, is defined as: "Any of numerous textile patterns consisting of stripes of varying widths and colors crossed at right angles against a solid background, each forming a distinctive design worn by the members of a Scottish clan." There are varying plaids, including the modern fly plaid, the long piper's plaid, and of course, the belted plaid (also referred to as the great kilt). Hope that helps a little.
    ~Sav

  3. #3
    Join Date
    26th January 05
    Location
    Western NC
    Posts
    5,717
    Sav has it pretty much right. But just to clarify further...

    "Plaid" actually comes from the Gaelic word for blanket. That's why the feileadh-mhor (Gaelic for "large wrap") is sometimes also called the belted plaid. Because it is a blanket that has been gathered and belted around your waist.

    People, historically, also wore unbelted plaids -- large shawls in other words. And plaid, in the context of modern highland dress, can refer to any of the tailored or untailored garments worn about the shoulders -- be it a fly plaid, piper's plaid, drummer's plaid, or a folded picnic blanket.

    So "plaid" refers to the clothing, no matter what the pattern of the fabric is -- even if it is solid color.

    But the plaids most often were of a tartan pattern, or course. Which is why the words "plaid" and "tartan" have become so confused. Not only do we have people referring to tartan as "plaid" but I also encounter many people who refer to plaids and kilts as "tartans."

    The Gaelic word for tartan is "breacan" which simply means "speckled." Oddly enough, they don't really have a precise word for a tartan pattern. The word tartan itself seems to have entered the vocabulary from the French word "tiretain" which originally referred to a type of linsey-woolsy cloth being imported from France in the sixteenth century. Why and how the word came to be applied to this particular form of pattern isn't really known.

    But, in short, plaid is a garment, tartan is a pattern.

    Aye,
    Matt
    Matthew A. C. Newsome, GTS
    Kiltmaker & Tartan Scholar
    US Distributor for House of Cheviot kilt hose
    Visit www.NewHouseHighland.com for custom kilts & knitwear.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    23rd January 04
    Posts
    4,676
    If you are talking in terms of material, I was under the impression that to classify as a tartan, the pattern or sett must repeat itself horizontally and vertically, where as a plaid does not.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    26th January 05
    Location
    Western NC
    Posts
    5,717
    Colin scriptsit:
    If you are talking in terms of material, I was under the impression that to classify as a tartan, the pattern or sett must repeat itself horizontally and vertically, where as a plaid does not.
    No, this is not a real distinction. Just look at the modern Welsh tartans that use a different warp and weft. And there are a few old Scottish (unnamed) tartans that have a different warp and weft, as well.

    Some people will say that a pattern has to be named to be a tartan and an unnamed pattern is "just a plaid," but this is not a real distinction. Rather like those that say "Mc" is Irish and "Mac" is Scottish and the like -- based on old wives' tales (no offense to old wives on the board!)

    Matt
    Matthew A. C. Newsome, GTS
    Kiltmaker & Tartan Scholar
    US Distributor for House of Cheviot kilt hose
    Visit www.NewHouseHighland.com for custom kilts & knitwear.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    21st March 05
    Location
    Plano, TX
    Posts
    199
    I understood that "tartan" referred to the weave - under 2 threads, over 2 threads. That weave gives the distinctive diagonals when 2 colors cross. Most patterns that you think of as plaid are over one, under one. Also, they're generally not symetrical. I know there were a few non-symetrical tartans, but they really seem to have been an exception, more than the rule, at least since Victorian times when tartans as we know them really came to be developed. I remember reading that the non-symetrical Buchanan tartan was really the result of a misprint in a book that it was listed in.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    24th October 04
    Location
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    Posts
    1,395
    Quote Originally Posted by Planopiper
    I understood that "tartan" referred to the weave - under 2 threads, over 2 threads. That weave gives the distinctive diagonals when 2 colors cross. Most patterns that you think of as plaid are over one, under one. Also, they're generally not symetrical. I know there were a few non-symetrical tartans, but they really seem to have been an exception, more than the rule, at least since Victorian times when tartans as we know them really came to be developed. I remember reading that the non-symetrical Buchanan tartan was really the result of a misprint in a book that it was listed in.
    There is a web site about tartans/plaids (sorry don't know the link) that makes this claim. I actually said this (in an e-mail) to Matt Newsome about three years ago (not knowing the extent of his knowledge at that time) and he promptly shot me down. I assume that he knows more than I do, and probably more that that web site as well. However if you can find that link I would like it.

    That site also had as evidence that some one (I think it was the king at the time) ordering several yards of plain blue tartan.

    Adam

  8. #8
    Join Date
    26th January 05
    Location
    Western NC
    Posts
    5,717
    I understood that "tartan" referred to the weave - under 2 threads, over 2 threads. That weave gives the distinctive diagonals when 2 colors cross. Most patterns that you think of as plaid are over one, under one. Also, they're generally not symetrical. I know there were a few non-symetrical tartans, but they really seem to have been an exception, more than the rule, at least since Victorian times when tartans as we know them really came to be developed. I remember reading that the non-symetrical Buchanan tartan was really the result of a misprint in a book that it was listed in.
    A 2-over, 2-under weave is called a twill weave. Although tartan cloth woven for kilt making will be in a twill weave, tartans do not have to be twill, nor do twills have to be tartans. Look at your blue jeans. The denim used there is twill weave. 1-over, 1-under is called plaid weave. And tartans can be plain weave. In fact, usually when a tartan is woven in spring weight (or tie weight) cloth, is is plain weave.

    Twill weave and plain weave refer to two different types of weaving. Tartan refers to a specific pattern of colors in the cloth. The two are independant factors.

    Regarding symmetrical vs. assymetrical tartans. Most all tartans are symmetrical (this means that the pattern is reversed when it is repeated, making a pattern that is symmetrical 90 degrees). But you already mentioned one tartan that is assymetrical, the Buchanan. Yes, this did begin as a mistake, but there are many other assymetrical tartans.

    Here is just a partial list:
    Campbell of Argyll
    Campbell Dress
    Cumming Hunting (Buchan)
    MacAlpine
    MacDonald Dress
    MacMillan Old
    Malcolm
    Stewart Hunting

    I have also examined many old, unnamed tartans that were assymetrical. So the fact that they don't follow the general practice does not mean that they are not a tartan.

    If you wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of what defines a tartan, you would have to say it is a woven pattern in which stripes of different colors intersect each other, creating mixtures, or half-tones where they cross -- or a graphic representation of such a design (like the background of this forum).

    But the difference between a "tartan" and a "plaid" is not the difference between two types of design. It's the difference between a certain kind of garment (plaid) and the pattern of cloth that the garment is made from (tartan).

    Aye,
    Matt
    (Not "shooting anyone down", just dispensing knowledge!)
    Matthew A. C. Newsome, GTS
    Kiltmaker & Tartan Scholar
    US Distributor for House of Cheviot kilt hose
    Visit www.NewHouseHighland.com for custom kilts & knitwear.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    1st March 04
    Location
    Lincolnshire, England
    Posts
    355
    Quote Originally Posted by M. A. C. Newsome
    But the difference between a "tartan" and a "plaid" is not the difference between two types of design. It's the difference between a certain kind of garment (plaid) and the pattern of cloth that the garment is made from (tartan).

    Aye,
    Matt
    (Not "shooting anyone down", just dispensing knowledge!)
    Thank you Matt for being so patient in explaining this. The use of the word 'plaid', when what is really meant is 'tartan', seems to be confined to North America. No one in the UK would refer to tartan as 'plaid', and we (on this side of the pond) tend to smile in amusement when we hear Americans refer to plaid, when it is obvious that they really mean 'tartan'.

    Rob (who wears a tartan kilt, but not a plaid)

  10. #10
    Join Date
    21st March 05
    Location
    Plano, TX
    Posts
    199
    Thanks, Matt for the information. I appreciate the careful explanation. It saves me having to do any real research on my own. I realize that a lot of what I've read is just other people repeating what they'd heard somewhere and doesn't have any more authoritative documentation. I think throwing out things like I did into a discussion and having them refuted by someone who knows what they're talking about is better than keping quiet hanging on to incorrect ideas.

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