What Is Tartan?

Whenever I used to hear the word “tartan”, an image of a beautiful piece of plaid clothing would appear in my head, but then I would get a bit confused. Does tartan mean plaid? Is tartan a type of plaid? Is plaid a type of tartan? Today I want to shed a little bit of light on tartan, in case any of you happen to be in the same boat. As with any historical subject, there may be some discrepancies – please let us know if you have any tartan facts to share! :)

The terms “tartan” and “plaid” seem to be interchangeable in the modern day — but they have not always been one and the same. While plaid is often used to describe checked patterns of all kinds, tartan tends to be a bit more specific.

Tartan sleeves

There is estimated to be up to 7,000 different tartans in existence, with about 150 new designs created annually! Originally, tartans were constructed using woven wool, although now they are made with a  variety of materials. Alternating bands of colored threads criss-cross perpendicularly to one another, and are woven in such a way that causes diagonal lines to form where different colors cross. This gives an illusion of new colors, although they are actually just a result of the crossing of the threads.

Tartan print skirt

There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer as to where tartan originated – some say western Asia, central Europe, and more — but much of its historical significance lies within Scotland, where tartan was worn as early as in the 17th century. Most Scottish clans actually have multiple tartans attributed to their name, and many even have “official” tartans.


We are certainly loving tartan-inspired patterns this fall, whether it’s slipping into a delicate tartan dress, or finishing a casual look with a flannel tried around our waist.

Tartan plaid top

Tartan-inspired products pictured: Tartan Track Pant, Plaid Crinkle TrouserPrinted Tattered Circles MaxiFP New Romantics Plaid Wrap Top, Tartan Tea Length Skirt.

Follow FP Brigette on Twitter.


  1. Any easy way to tell a plaid from a tarten is that a plaid looks different when held horizontally than vertically . Tarten will look the same in either direction. :)

  2. Plaid never goes out of style tartans will always be a wardrobe staple… That’s like saying stripes are out when they never do go out … I see plaid and stripes almost every fall in someone’s collection… Besides style is something that can’t be bought or imulated , you either have it or you don’t … I have and always will wear tartans maybe that’s just because I’m British

  3. I’m Scottish, so it’s rather interesting to match up what you say about us with what we say about us xD.
    I’ve always heard it was us that invented tartan, but I suspect that you’re right on that score. As for the clan tartan… Yeah, we have a tartan. Blue and gold- It’s really rather beautiful. (McDowell clan)
    And before anyone asks, yes, I have had Haggis. Once. And it’s not nearly as bad as you think.

  4. I too have been curious about this, here is what I found:

    “Plaid” actually comes from the Gaelic word for blanket. That’s why the feileadh-mhor (Gaelic for “large wrap”) is sometimes also called the belted plaid. Because it is a blanket that has been gathered and belted around your waist.

    People, historically, also wore unbelted plaids — large shawls in other words. And plaid, in the context of modern highland dress, can refer to any of the tailored or untailored garments worn about the shoulders — be it a fly plaid, piper’s plaid, drummer’s plaid, or a folded picnic blanket.

    So “plaid” refers to the clothing, no matter what the pattern of the fabric is — even if it is solid color.

    But the plaids most often were of a tartan pattern, or course. Which is why the words “plaid” and “tartan” have become so confused. Not only do we have people referring to tartan as “plaid” but I also encounter many people who refer to plaids and kilts as “tartans.”

    The Gaelic word for tartan is “breacan” which simply means “speckled.” Oddly enough, they don’t really have a precise word for a tartan pattern. The word tartan itself seems to have entered the vocabulary from the French word “tiretain” which originally referred to a type of linsey-woolsy cloth being imported from France in the sixteenth century. Why and how the word came to be applied to this particular form of pattern isn’t really known.

    But, in short, plaid is a garment, tartan is a pattern.

    Credit: http://www.xmarksthescot.com/forum/f99/tartan-vs-plaid-12420/

  5. Centuries ago in Scotland, there was usually only one weaver for miles and miles and he would have only a limited amount of dye and limited variety of patterns to offer and usually only one at a time. This lead to many people wearing the same pattern all over the district which in turn lead to people being recognised by the pattern common their location. Since clans lived in the same area, the district tartans eventually got adopted as clan tartans in accordance with the rather romantic if completely made up ideas of the great writer and Scottish patriot, Sir Walter Scot.

    According to my mother, kilt tartans are the only check pattern that should be called “tartan” and are identified by a white stripe in the pattern. The white stripe is in order for the wearers to know where to put the folds for the many, many pleats that kilts require.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.