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When a Plaid is not a Plaid

As published in the Napa Valley Register

If you’ve been out and about during this Christmas season, you’ve probably seen a lot of plaid. It’s in clothing from slippers to hats and everything in between. It’s also in home goods from table top decor and blankets to gift wrap paper and ribbons. The green, red, and gold color combination is called “Christmas plaid” and according to the Scottish Registry of Tartans, the green symbolizes frankincense, the red myrrh, and the gold kingship. Christians believe that these gifts were bestowed upon the baby Jesus by the Magi.

The subject of plaid is a complicated one. In fact, plaid is not really the horizontal and vertical criss-crossed pattern you may be imagining. Rather, it is a heavy cloak that was first worn by traveling Scotsmen to ward off their bitter-cold winters. The word “plaid” is derived from the 15th century Gaelic word “plaide” meaning blanket. These cloaks were (and still are) made of wool and come in many color combinations and are woven into a pattern you and I have come to call “plaid.” But while plaid is the actual cloak, its criss-crossed pattern is called “tartan.” When American textile manufacturers recreated tartan-patterned fabrics, they described them as plaids and the misnomer stuck. The different tartan patterns and colors are associated with different Scottish clans. It could be said that the Scottish warriors known as Jacobites were responsible for this tradition. They were a group of clans who supported the restoration of Roman Catholic King James to the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland. They adopted the tartan pattern into their dress, and the design became associated with these rebels. To diffuse their attacks in the Scottish Highlands, the Dress Act of 1746 was passed that banned the wearing of tartans except by those of the Highlands regiments of the British Army. Different patterns were used to help differentiate one regiment from the other. Tartan popularity soared in 1822 when King George visited Scotland wearing a tartan kilt to the Grand Ball. Sir Walter Scott later decreed, “No gentleman is allowed to appear in anything but the ancient Highland costume.” As expected, Lowland men then rushed to retrace any possible lineage to Highland ancestry, which would then give them a valid reason to wear a kilt, a symbol of Scottish pride. Hamilton Carhartt, founder of the Carhartt Company that manufactured durable clothing, is credited with bringing the tartan flannel to the United States in the 1800s. It was embraced by lumberjacks and railroad workers as it kept them warm in the harsh winds and cold rain (much like the original tartan cloaks/plaids.) The tartan pattern thus became associated with rugged mountain men. As much as the tartan pattern is associated with Scotland, a 3,000-year-old mummy known as the “Cherchen Man” was discovered wearing tartan leg-coverings in Northwest China. But wait, there’s more. Tartan textiles dating to the 6th century B.C. were found in 2004 in the Hallstatt Salt Mines of Austria.

I mentioned before that plaid was a complicated subject. As you now know, I should have used the word tartan instead of plaid. But this isn’t really accurate, either. Since we’re in the U.S., let’s agree to think of plaids as a pattern and not a cloak. Here’s the twist: while all tartans are plaids, not all plaids are tartans. If the vertical stripes are exactly the same as the horizontal stripes, then the plaid is a tartan. If not, then the plaid is just a plaid. Some commonly known tartans are Burberry, Royal Stewart, and Glen (or Prince of Wales). Most, if not all, Madras patterns are plaids but not tartans.

Here’s another twist. Can you distinguish a plaid from a check? There’s a lot of confusion and erroneously interchangeable terms when it comes to checks. Buffalo, gingham, houndstooth, tattersall, and window pane are called both plaids and checks. I have a rule that will keep you consistent as well as correct: a check pattern consists of two colors (but sometimes more) where the vertical and horizontal stripes intersect in such a way that they form equally-sized squares. So, buffalo and gingham are, indeed, checks but tattersall, window pane and houndstooth patterns are really plaids.

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