Scottish Tartan or Modern Plaid: Deciding What’s for You
The plaid tie or the tartan one—which should you wear? One speaks of tradition and family pride. The other is simply stylish.
But which is which? What is the difference between the tartan and the plaid?
There are many answers to that question.
The Scottish View
First, we could look at the tartan and the plaid from the point of view of the people who first used them: the Scots of the 16th century.
As far as the Scots are concerned, the tartan is the patterned cloth used to make kilts and blankets and, yes, plaids.
The plaid, in 16th century language, is the tartan cloth that the Scots sling over their shoulder.
In this context, the term plaid necktie would sound rather strange. It would be like saying “a blanket necktie,” which just could not be. A thing would either be a necktie or a blanket. It could not be both.
As the tartan and plaid entered into the more recent decades, the terms became nearly synonymous. Plaids were called tartans, and vice versa.
But, according to Carnegie Mellon, there is a difference in the patterns. In their Tartans website, they explain that it’s a tartan, not a plaid, if:
- it’s a check or pattern in a variety of colors in woven fabric in which bands of color are repeated in equal proportion in warp (running lengthwise) and weft (running across);
- each stripe of the warp crosses every stripe of the weft, so when vertical and horizontal stripes of the same color cross, the result is solid color at the point of intersection; and
- the arrangement of colored threads is the same in the warp as in the weft.
To put it simply, if it’s a tartan, it has to look exactly the same horizontally as it does vertically. The bands of color are “repeated in equal proportion” lengthwise as crosswise.
Plaid patterns, on the other hand, could have strips of color inserted vertically that are not present horizontally, or vice versa.
There is another characteristic of the genuine tartan cloth: because of the way it is woven, you will see upon close inspection that the strips of colors are, in fact, not solid but are formed by a series of diagonal lines.
The Symbolism of the Tartan
Today, the tartan is considered an important part of any Scottish clan. Some clans have “official” tartans, which are registered and recorded by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in the Lyon Court Books.
But the tartan is no longer the exclusive property of the Scots. It has been adopted by the rest of the world as well. Non-Scottish families, districts, corporations, and military units have created their own tartans. Many American and Canadian states have their own official tartans. Even Canada itself has a national, albeit unofficial, tartan.
The appeal of the tartan, of course, lies in its exclusivity. It is like a coat of arms, a symbol of uniqueness. Private educational institutions, for instance, are much more likely to adopt tartan ties rather than plaid ties for their students’ uniform. The tartan not only identifies the institution, it underscores its exclusivity as well.
In a rather strange twist of events, in the 1970s, the plaid pattern began to be used by the British youth in punk fashion to voice out their discontent with modern society. Suddenly, this tartan-like pattern, so long associated with the ruling class, became a symbol of rebellion against authority.
However, with the most recent fashion trends, the plaid is become more light-hearted and whimsical. Today, plaid no longer holds the heaviness of the tartan. We wear plaid pants, plaid suits, and plaid neckties in the spirit of fun.
So which should you wear—tartan or plaid? It all depends on what you want to say. To communicate exclusivity, wear a tartan. To breathe out a spirit of fun, wear plaid.