Written by: Deb German
A tartan is a plaid that originated in Scotland, but in Scotland a plaid is a blanket—its cousin tattersall in fact has a chequered past on the back of a horse. Though this may sound convoluted, the check is the thing that binds them all, each one a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines intersecting at right angles. It’s the subtle (and occasionally outspoken) differences that distinguish them, making one fitting for an unassuming flannel shirt here and another for a refined gentlemen’s waistcoat there, to say nothing of a wide array of applications in other men’s and women’s clothing and accessories.
Can you name your checks? Here’s a quick primer on plaids:
Whilst the word plaid originates from the Gaelic term for blanket—pladjer—in more common parlance a plaid is simply a pattern of intersecting vertical and horizontal bands in two or more colours, similar to a tartan. Strictly speaking, a plaid may describe a cloth or blanket worn draped over the shoulder, but it enjoys wider appeal as the cheerful pattern on your favourite weekend shirt.
Plaids can be printed or woven, but a shirt in woven plaid is far and above the superior garment. And whilst plaid in general is casual by nature, in its most refined guise—the Glen plaid, for example—it’s more than appropriate for dressier occasions.
Scottish monarch King James’ treasurer recorded the earliest purchase of a tartan plaid in 1497, but tartan lost its status as an exclusively royal fabric in 1746, when it was used in rebellion against the British Crown. (For a brief time an Act of Parliament made it unlawful to wear one.) Individual Scottish clans lay claim to their tartans, agreeable and sometimes richly colourful plaid patterns. Often done in a twill weave consisting of vertical and horizontal, or even diagonal stripes and lines of varied colours, Black Watch and Royal Stewart are two of the most recognisable tartans, adored by royalty and London Punks in equal measure. Tartan sets off your look as classic or traditional.
This familiar pattern gained prominence in London as early as the 1700s thanks to its ubiquitous use in the Tattersall market’s horse blankets, but remains widely popular today. Evenly spaced vertical stripes intertwining with horizontal repeating stripes in alternating colours impart a “square within a square” illusion to the tattersall pattern, whose stripes are typically darker than the background colour. It’s a casual check to be sure, but versatile: tattersall lends polish to men’s dress shirts and waistcoats, appropriate for any season on the calendar.
The West became enamoured of Madras plaid in the 17th and 18th centuries and never looked back. Named for its historical provenance in India, Madras is an ultra-casual plaid distinguished by different coloured stripes that criss-cross each other to create uneven checks. And because it’s nearly always handwoven in lightweight cotton, it is a darling of traditional warm weather couture, especially favoured for shorts and chinos. Most often seen in bright colours wandering about in summery venues, this appealing plaid says you are unafraid to dress boldly. But precisely because it is so colourful, Madras is best offset by muted solid colours.
So called because that’s precisely how it looks, the windowpane pattern consists of thin, intersecting lines—usually in white or offwhite against a darker background colour—set further apart than the stripes in a graph check. The result is windowpane-like squares, always in one colour. This recognisable pattern is most likely to pop up in men’s suits, but makes an occasional appearance in shirts, and in women’s tops and dresses.
It started simply as stripes, but by the mid-18th century Manchester mills were weaving it in the pattern we recognise as gingham today: same-coloured crisscrossing horizontal and vertical stripes, against a typically white background, create tight, square checks—a “tablecloth” pattern, if you will. Dorothy’s plucky blue and white gingham dress saw her through perils from Kansas to Oz, but make no mistake: crisp, likeable gingham has enjoyed a resurgence in men’s shirts in recent years.
Also known as Prince of Wales check, its name comes from Glenurquhart in Inverness-shire, Scotland, where it was first used in the 1800s. Woven in a twill pattern (mainly in suits), this distinctive plaid results from alternating dark and light stripes crossing each other to create a web of irregular small and large checks. Glen plaid typically comes in muted colours, often incorporating greys and whites. It’s a classic plaid preferred by princes and presidents, and distinguishes its wearer as a gentleman.
Its name reflects its look: houndstooth plaid possesses a distinctive, pointy pattern of broken and uneven checks resembling dog’s teeth. It’s most often seen in black and white, but also comes in other colours. Its progenitor is the shepherd’s check, similar to gingham but with a visible twill weave.
You’ll recognise this as “lumberjack” plaid: it’s basically an oversized gingham, where coloured vertical and horizontal lines intersect over white or another solid colour to created even-sized checks.
Honourable mentions go to the graph check (think graph paper), the mini-check (gingham writ small), and the pin check—so minuscule the checks converge and appear as a textured solid to the casual observer. Small and mighty, these diminutive patterns still stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of their big brothers in any gentleman’s wardrobe.