Plaid vs. Tartan


I thought it might be fun to try something new in 2015. One of my main hobbies is reading, or rather, learning. I will read anything, but I absolutely devour histories. So I thought it might be fun to explore the intersection of the subject of my blog with my love of history. Plus I totally love educating people (I recognize fact that education might only be happening to myself). But there’s a little voice inside my head that goes “If I long for this type of post on a blog, someone out there must also be looking for it!” Faulty Logic? Perhaps. Anyways, without further ado I give to you: Plaid vs. Tartan!

I love plaid. Everyone loves plaid. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a plaid elitist because I was raised in rural Quebec and I have more real-life beard growing, axe throwing, bear hunting lumberjacks in my family than I have fingers on my hands (I still have all ten of my fingers, by the way… I can’t say as much for some of the lumberjacks in my family…). But lately as I’ve scoured the malls for a plaid blanket scarf, I found myself calling certain patterns plaids, and others tartans. And I couldn’t help but (internally) cry, “Someone please enlighten me!” But no one did, so I did it myself!

If you look up the word plaid in a dictionary, you’ll find a few definitions [1]:

  1. A rectangular length of tartan worn over the left shoulder as part of the scottish national costume
  2. a) A twilled woolen fabric with a tartan pattern
    b) A fabric with a pattern of tartan or an imitation of tartan
  3. a) Tartan
    b) A pattern of unevenly spaced repeated stripes crossing at right angles

But a quick search for the origin of the word plaid reveals that the word is related to the gaelic word plaide meaning blanket or mantle [2]. So what we call the kilt, actually first appeared in what was called a “belted plaid”, literally like a belted blanket [3]. It looked like this (fun fact it doubled as a blanket for the night… much like our modern trend of blanket scarves). It was the predecessor to the kilt, today modern kilts are still worn with plaids (long length of fabric), but over the shoulder (separate piece of fabric, like this) [3]. Somewhere along the way, notably as the tartan wearers immigrated to America, the actual pattern was mistakenly called plaid.

So the correct word for the actual pattern is tartan. But then… where does the word tartan come from? Where does the pattern come from?

The fact is those who hold the answers to those questions have long, long been buried. The oldest tartan fabric we know of comes to us from the Tarim mummies.The Tarim mummies, named after the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, China (the most north-west region of China) where they were found, were found with pieces of preserved cloth, exhibiting tartan patterns. Contrary to intuition, these mummies don’t exhibit asiatic features, rather, they seem to be “from the west” [4]. The name for the culture that the Tarim mummies belonged to was the Tokharians whose language is most similar to that of the Celts [5]. See those interesting paths starting to form? Unfortunately, we seem to know much more than that. How tartan became so strongly associated with the Scottish is a mystery, we can only assume that they saw it, liked it, and wanted to wear it!

Oh and one more thing, clan-tartans are modern inventions. In the origins of Scottish tartans the colours were determined by plant availability and to some degree personal taste [3]. When I say modern, I mean like, victorian-era, so today the tradition of clan tartans have been going long enough to not be ridiculous, but in the base of it it was all arbitrary: you retroactively picked a tartan for your clan, on the basis that you thought it was pretty.

This ended up being a heck of a lot longer than I anticipated… Please let me know if you enjoyed this (and want more! Denim vs. Chambray, anyone?) or if I should stay away from this type of post!!




  1. No, don’t stay away! That was really, really interesting. Did you know that there are also language family relationships with similar knots and tangles. There’s the Altaic language family, from Central Asia, thought to perhaps be related to Turkish; and some think that Anatolia is where the Celts began before they migrated west to NW Spain (think Basque and Aelian pipes), France (think Asterix) and the British Isles (think bagpipes). This is fascinating stuff – but then if I’m visiting a new town and can only get to one museum, it will always be the textile one I get to.

    1. This is actually my least viewed post, by FAR… but it’s also my own personal favorite! I absolutely adore reading about these types of things! I had never heard of the Altaic languages, it’s interesting how Japanese and Korean are (debatably) included as a part of the family. I would’ve thought that there were more relations to chinese, although I have read that though the japanese use some traditional chinese characters the fundamental structure of the language doesn’t share common roots. Sort of like how vietnamese uses the roman alphabet due to colonisation, but doesn’t share roots with french! I have never been to a textile museum, but when I visit Toronto someday (home of the Textile Museum of Canada) I hope to go!

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