Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Plaid or Check ~ What's the Difference?

As a child growing up, I used two terms for fabric with a pattern of squares - checks or checkered, and tartan. No one ever explained the difference, and I never thought to ask. Basically, if it was a simple pattern with no overlapping squares, I called them checks, and if the pattern was more complex, with overlapping squares and lines, to me the fabric was tartan.

In recent years, I'vs seen another term added to the mix - plaid. I've seen fabrics labelled as plaid, when I thought they were checkered. And I've also seen fabrics labelled as plaid, when I would have called them tartan. My childhood perceptions needed questioning and research, to find the correct terms.

Plaid, Check or Tartan ~ What is the difference? ~ Threading My Way

According to Wikipedia...
A check is a pattern of modified stripes consisting of crossed horizontal and vertical lines forming squares.
Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours.
Plaid is a cloth made with a tartan pattern wrapped around the waist and cast over the shoulder and fastened at the front.

Apparently, plaid is the North American word for tartan.

Therefore the shorts above would be checkered, while the 60s skirt below would be plaid if you live in North America, and tartan for the rest of us. I'm not sure if the 60s dress comes into the tartan/plaid category.

However, it seems it's not that simple. There's lots of discussion online, with varying opinions.
  • Whether the vertical and horizontal stripes are the same or not, determines whether a pattern is a plaid or a tartan. House Beautiful Interview
  • Tartan is the name for the cloth and plaid is the name for the particular pattern. - Dictionary.com
  • Plaid refers to the clothing, no matter what the pattern of the fabric is. Tartan is the pattern. - Xmarksthescot.com
  • Checkered is usually squares of two different colours. Plaid is a pattern consisting of crossed horizontal and vertical bands... Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands... Enjoy Bedding
  • Tartan plaid is the pattern that is most often found on Scottish kilts. Alexander West
  • Plaid is a garment. Tartan is the actual pattern of cloth the garment is made from. - The Dainty Dollhouse

It seems that over time, meanings have changed depending on location. Originally, plaid was a blanket type garment wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder. Plaids were usually made from a fabric with a tartan pattern. 

Tartan is a particular pattern that we associate with Scotland, from whence it originated. The method of weaving forms lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours in squares blended from the original colours.

Over time and depending on location, plaid and tartan have become interchangeable.

Checkered fabric is woven in such a way that the pattern is made of solid squares, without separate lines. Although I have seen checkered fabric and plaid called the same thing, I have been unable to find any references while researching this post. 

Mud Puddle Splashers - pattern by Fishsticks Designs ~ modified by Threading My Way

Language is continually changing and evolving. Location is a big factor in how words change in meaning. For example: flip flops in the U.S. are thongs in Australia. Thongs in the U.S. are G-strings in Australia.

I'd like to open this topic up for discussion. 
  • How do you define checks, plaid and tartan in your corner of the world?
  • What would you call the patterns on each of the three garments on this page?
Mud Puddle Splashers - pattern by Fishsticks Designs ~ modified by Threading My Way

This is most definitely the last pair of shorts I'll be making for several months. The weather is rapidly cooling down!!!

These shorts have been made using the Mud Puddle Splashers by Fishsticks Designs. I modified the pattern to add a band at the hemline. There's an option in the pattern for a cuff, but I wanted a contrasting fabric. It was just a matter of shortening the pattern and adding the band, the same as when I modified the Sunny Day Shorts to add a band.

I've lost track of how many Mud Puddle Splashers I've made. Tells you how much I like it...

Language changing and evolving is not a new thing. We no longer speak as Shakespeare did. I suspect that our online world today will make the changes take a new direction.

... Pam


  1. Great timing Pam! I finished a dress today and the fabric is labeled as a plaid. I think it looks like a check though and wondering what's the difference. ha ha

  2. Lol Pam! I had to google tartan once!! Why do us Americans always have to be different? Like the metric system...they teach it in school but most of us forget before we get out of elementary. And metric would be so much easier, math wise! When I think of plaid, I normally think of lightweight flannel. Also a flannel Or cotton button up (tartan) plaid shirt can sometimes be called a plaid instead of a shirt. I think that's a cowboy thing, not sure.

  3. This is a great post Pam and I love the name of your blog. I had never thought of the difference between plaid and check. Language is a funny thing. I'm an Aussie but I live in the UK. My accent gets commented on occasionally as does my pronunciation of words :-)

    1. Thanks, Cathy. I'm fascinated with the changes in the English language between different countries.

  4. Oh tell me about the language :) I do use the dictionary all the time and I get confused quite often as well :)

  5. I've always wondered about 'plaid', it's not a term I'd ever use, now that makes sense.

  6. Yep, I grew up in Florida and we called it plaid. Tartans were the Scottish attire, if you weren't Scottish you were wearing plaid! And we are all speaking English! Maybe I'm speaking American. LeeAnna at not afraid of color

  7. For me tartan means the traditional patterns and fabric that kilts are made from and the rest is check! Plaid is a word I'd never heard till I moved across the pond!!

  8. I had never heard of plaid in connection with a pattern until I came across US fabric sites, where it is used for fabric patterns that I would call tartan. I thought that it was a generic term for checks and tartans in the US, but maybe I am wrong. Being Scottish, tartan is a very specific pattern or fabric using the pattern, whilst plaid is the term for the length of tartan worn over the shoulder and fastened with a brooch. Our eldest son wore a plaid at his wedding, and as the groom was the only one of the wedding party to do so.

  9. The variations of the English language are fascinating...not only in different countries but it different regions of the same country. My husband grew up in the northern midwest and calls water fountains, bubblers. I grew up in the south and had no clue what he was talking about. Language is very interesting! The shorts' fabric is checked to me while the other 2 are plaid. ;) Tartan to me is the plaid that the different Scottish clans have.

  10. So interesting Pam! I've always thought of checks as two colors only, in squares one after the other, while plaid had some mixed shades of the color, and other stripes. when I went to England , they did call it tartan instead. But i also though tartan was only meant to describe the designs that come from Scottish clans.

  11. Tartan is a distinct pattern associated with the clans of Scotland. While the tartan patterns are plaid, plaid is not always a tartan. The check print, like a plaid, in its vertical and horizontal lines forming squares, is what I grew up calling "checkered plaid". Its design is simpler in pattern and color distribution.

    1. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion, Hippa. It's an interesting topic, made even more so by the differences in languages across the world.

  12. Those darned Americans!! Lol... Plaid has only joined the international language since internet, TV etc. Check is squares crossing each other, more complex with stripes but only two colours etc is plaid however, we rarely use plaid in Australia..More than two colours is tartan, also traditional Scottish designs are tartan. The multiple colours make it tartan, the design makes it check or plaid.. We rarely say plaid in Oz, mainly calling it check...

    1. Thanks so much for your input. I'm not sure that Aussie shopkeepers would know what I was talking about if I used the term 'plaid'.

  13. Fascinating. I stumbled across this post when trying to translate the word for checkered shirt from Norwegian. I can relate to this being the simplest form of pattern: the word, in my Norwegian brain, relates to chess (think of the words check and check mate). Plaid (pledd) makes sense as the word literally means quilt (with a more-than advanced pattern than a simple checker board) in our language. Tartan is from Scottish Gaelic language, and per definition it is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours.
    Thanks for the post and all the comments. I feel enlightened, and also loving the linguistic debates and digging in to find the origin of words and language. :-)


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