The Tartan & Plaid Primer: 12 Pieces You Need Now

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. People have been confused about the “Is it tartan or is it plaid?” question for over a century. Literally. In a November 11, 1909 letter to the editor of The New York Times, a dissatisfied shopper, Allan L. Purves, passionately wrote, “I have often wondered why, in the department stores of this city, all tartan clothes, tartans of silk or of any other fabric, are called plaids.”
We’ll be honest: We’ve been in the same boat as that reader for quite some time. But we’ve finally decided to put our glasses on and up our academic game. With the help of Mr. Purves and others, we are now well versed in the languages of tartan and plaid. And yes, they are two different languages.
Enid Nemy, who wrote “Tartans: A Current Fashion With A Long History” in a 1971 NYT article, explained, “A plaid is really a shoulder garment that is almost like a blanket." Indeed, Merriam-Webster defines plaid as “a fabric with a pattern of tartan or an imitation of tartan.” So, technically, “plaid” isn’t the print. Tartan is. Getting it?
What is this print exactly? Interlocking stripes running in both the warp and weft (a.k.a. the horizontal and vertical lengths of the cloth) create a mesmerizing pattern that is instantly recognizable. The thicker bands of color are called “under checks” while the thinner, more decorative, and often more colorful bands are called “over checks.” These strips of color create a pattern that either reverses, is symmetrical, or starts again. Basically, turn an actual tartan any way, and it should look the same.
Another interesting tidbit: Tartan prints are historically representative of an individual’s group affiliation. Different types of tartan included clan and family tartans, district tartans, regimental tartans, universal tartans, and more. Today, history and fashion meet with the creation of a “fashion tartan” category. These tartan prints are not "official" or "authentic" in that they do not represent a group of people and subsequently have no approval from any sort of governing body. Instead, fashion tartans are all about the colors, the aesthetic, which brings us to pattern lesson number three.
The colors used in traditional tartans were similarly meaningful and designed to project particular moods or sensibilities. “Modern” tartans include strong, bold colors: deep greens, blues, and blacks, as well as bright reds and yellows. “Ancient” tartans are both less saturated in tone and slightly lighter in shade, to create a faded look. “Muted” tartans are slightly more subtle shades of a similar color palette. For example, a strong green would indicate a modern tartan, but an olive green would be considered muted. Finally, “weathered" tartans are recognizable because of their dramatic fading, which creates a sense of having been buried in the ground for years. This color palette often includes browns, greys, and shades of red.
Still with us? Flip through our interpretations of modern-day plaids tartans and take a moment to forget about our history lesson and simply admire the pieces. Or, try and decide for yourself which color category you think these tartans should fit into. In any case, we're pretty sure they'd fit into our closets. Class is over.