The Plaid Journal: A Checkered Past
Anyone who has seen the Mel Gibson blockbuster Braveheart knows that plaid – or more accurately, tartan – has a storied history. Who can forget the indelible image of a mulleted, face-painted Gibson roaring into battle wearing the tartan kilt of his clansmen? However, just as Braveheart has been proven woefully historically inaccurate (seriously, there is an entire wiki devoted to discrediting the flick’s facts), plaid’s past has been somewhat muddled, as well. First things first: What Americans call plaid is, in fact, tartan. The word “plaid” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning blanket. Blankets in Scotland were often made of tartan, hence the appropriation. Tartan, for its part, comes from the French tiretain or tirer (to pull), referring to the woven nature of this celebrated patterned fabric.
A PLAID PRIMER
Sure, you know it when you see it, but how is a plaid pattern created? Plaid (or tartan for our British readers) is created by alternating bands of pre-dyed threads woven as warp (the lengthwise yarns in a fabric) and weft (the yarns that thread over and under the warp) at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill design (two over, two under the warp), which forms visible diagonal lines where the different colors cross. This gives the appearance of new colors blended from the original hues. The resulting blocks of color repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
The earliest evidence of tartan fabric can be traced to central Europe and Western China between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C. The first documented use of tartan in Britain dates back to the 3rd century A.D., proving that tartan is as enduring as it is egalitarian. Despite Mr. Gibson’s claims, tartan didn’t surface as the power pattern as we know it until the Scottish Rebellion of 1745, which pitted the Scottish Jacobite army against British rule. The Scots were known to wear brightly colored vestments during their battles. The Dress Act of 1746, which attempted to bring the Scottish warrior clans under government control by banning outward displays of Gaelic culture, forbade the wearing of tartan. When the law was repealed in 1782, tartan’s myth as a symbol of Scotland’s identity was forever cemented as it became associated with various Scottish clans, families, and institutions. Today there are between 3,500-7,000 known tartans with approximately 150 new designs created each year. There are so many tartans, in fact, that the Scottish Parliament established the Scottish Register of Tartans in 2008 to “protect, promote, and preserve tartan.” This database of tartan designs is maintained by the National Records of Scotland. And, yes, the Braveheart tartan is listed.
Plaid made its mark in the New World via Pennsylvania-based Woolrich Woolen Mills, which gave birth to the iconic Buffalo plaid in the 1850s. The distinctive red-and-black pattern favored by lumberjacks is so named because the pattern designer owned a herd of buffalo (according to company lore). Other notable moments in the history of American plaid: In 1924, Oregon-based Pendleton introduced a mass-produced men’s plaid shirt, followed by its female version in 1949. The quintessential small American town – Cedar Springs, Michigan – gained national notoriety for its production of red flannel sweaters and its subsequent Red Flannel Festival. The pattern became synonymous with the Paul Bunyan-esque folklore of American ingenuity, idealism, and expansion. In fact, many U.S. states and Canadian provinces and territories have their own official tartan. Plaid’s rustic, countrified connotations continued unabated in America – that is until the 1970s hit and those simple stripes and squares were never viewed quite the same again.
ANARCHY IN THE U.K.
There are more than 20 traditional tartans commissioned by the British Royal Family, beginning in 1853 with the Balmoral designed by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Because of its royal roots, the Balmoral cannot be worn by anyone unless the Queen of England’s permission is granted. It was just these types of rules that the punk movement of 1970s England rebelled against, and tartan once again became a symbol of the anti-establishment. The disenfranchised youth of Thatcher-era London made tartan their own, complete with plenty of rips, tears, and safety pins for good measure. Designers soon followed suit, with Vivienne Westwood incorporating tartan into her punk rock-inspired couture creations. Plaid got a rock revival in the 1990s with the rise of grunge and its requisite flannel shirt. Marc Jacobs’ seminal Spring 1993 collection featured waifs walking the runway in tattered tartans, cashmere thermals, and beat-up leather jackets to much fanfare. Today, plaid can register as preppy (think a crisp button-down shirt tucked neatly into perfectly pressed chinos), or it can read rocker-rebel (Alexander McQueen’s bold modern-day kilts come to mind).
CHECK IT OUT
In spite of (or perhaps because of) tartan’s long history, it is an often-misunderstood pattern. Plaid designs shouldn’t be confused with checked for example, however the two terms are often used interchangeably. As mentioned previously, plaid is a pattern consisting of crossed horizontal and vertical bands in two or more colors that appear on a solid background in various widths. Checked patterns in all their variations (gingham, shepherd’s check, tattersall, etc.) are made of uniform squares of two different colors usually (but not always) alternating one color with black or white. We’ll delve into the various checked patterns individually: Gingham: A distinctive checked pattern distinguished by white and colored, even-sized checks formed by horizontal and vertical stripes. Shepherd’s Check: A pattern of small, uniform white and colored checks that differs from gingham by the visible twill weave. The name derives from the plaid traditionally worn by shepherds in the Scottish hills. Glen Plaid/Prince of Wales Check: Popular in suiting, this twill pattern features uneven small and large checks with alternating dark and light stripes. Houndstooth: Similar to Shepherd’s Check and Glen Plaid in that the checks are uneven and pointy (like a hound’s tooth) and traditionally black and white. A perennial favorite of both men’s and women’s designers. Tattersall: Checked pattern that consists of thin, regularly spaced stripes in alternating colors that are repeated horizontally and vertically. Windowpane: Thick and evenly spaced lines that form wide checks.
THE MAKINGS OF AN ICON
Of all the patterns in history, plaid may be the most illustrious (sorry, paisley). Plaid’s rich heritage, versatile visage, and unforgettable moments in fashion have culminated in an enduring pattern for the ages.
Leave a comment
Comments will be approved before showing up.