You Say, “Plaid” and I Say, “Tartan”

20th May

Is it plaid or tartan?

Plaid or Tartan?

A while back I was roaming the hallways of Superior Court where I worked, and an attorney approached me to say, “Nice tartan!” referring to my wool blazer with criss-crossing stripes. After looking at her quizzically for a moment, wondering why she had said “tartan” and not “plaid“, I could only sheepishly mumble “Thank you” and continue on my way.

Oh, how I would have loved to have been able to say, “Oh, yes. Isn’t it funny how people always confuse ‘tartan’ and ‘plaid.’ Well, I’m glad you got it right!” The truth was, however, that I hadn’t the foggiest of what distinguished “tartan” from “plaid“.

Plaid or Tartan?

Thanks to the interwebs, I now see a clear distinction between plaid and tartan. Although most Americans use the terms interchangeably, Scottish sources define them differently:

Tartan is a criss-cross pattern of intersecting stripes, and plaid is a wool cloth – possibly with a tartan pattern – slung over the shoulder.

Plaid or Tartan?

Easy distinction, right? Well, yes…unless you stumble, as I did, upon a contrast described by Scott Meacham Wood, a designer who once worked for Ralph Lauren:

With most every tartan, the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated on the horizontal axis too…When looking at a simple plaid, you’ll notice that the stripes — either in color, size, or pattern — are not the same in both directions.

Plaid or Tartan?

I entertained this secondary notion for a full five minutes. That is until I consulted Merriam Webster, and the Collins dictionary. Interestingly, not one mentioned particular stripes going in one direction and not the other. 

So although I invite you to embrace whichever definition suits your fancy, I think I’ll stick with the more straightforward one. And next time someone comments on my tartan, I will recognize that person’s precision of terminology – according to the Scots.

Plaid or Tartan?

Frankly, I am fascinated by the fact that an ancient pattern like tartan is still hugely popular, for example, among grunge aficionados, hipsters and fashionistas (some seen in photos above). Architecturally, a similar pattern is popular in construction; have you seen, for example, the upper balconies of the new Whitney Museum (pictured below)?

Yes, I will try to remember to start calling that criss-cross pattern in fabric tartan


unless of course, it’s gingham!




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