Tartans represent ageless elegance

Story by Meredith Coopman
It’s traditional, timeless and classic. It’s also bold, cozy and totally chic. This season, more than ever, tartan has made its mark on furniture, accessories and clothing alike. It’s plaid, it’s en vogue and it’s everywhere.

This extremely versatile pattern goes with just about everything. It’s one of the most multi-dimensional designs. Whether it’s tartan or tattersall, gingham or check, there’s little argument against the fact that plaid could work its way into just about any type of décor. By bridging the gap between modern and traditional, it truly runs the gamut in terms of design.

Considered a very classic pattern, plaid has started to break into homes with a modern panache all its own. Blown-out scale, bold, bright, unconventional colors, and the layering of styles have brought this once ultra traditional pattern into modern times with flair. Because it’s a classic, plaid also endures as a safe pattern for more traditional tastes.

Think Ralph Lauren, Pendleton, Orvis, Burberry, Woolrich. These names have been around for a long time. They represent ageless elegance. In fact, tartans have been around for centuries and are recognized worldwide.

Difference Between Tartan and Plaid

All tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan.

In Scotland, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the word “tartan” was widely used by the English and Scots for distinctively woven cloth coming out of the Highlands. Plaid comes from the Gaelic word for “large wrap or blanket.” Plaid is a certain kind of garment, and tartan is the actual pattern of cloth the garment is made from.

Only in North America are the terms plaid and tartan mistakenly interchanged. All plaids and tartans are comprised of stripes that meet at a 90-degree angle. With most every tartan, the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly replicated on the horizontal axis. This matching pattern in both directions creates a grid. The warp and weft threads are then woven into a twill pattern. It’s about the geometry. In a simple plaid, the stripes, either in color, size, or pattern, are not the same in both directions.

The pattern of a tartan is called a “sett.” The sett is made up of a series of woven threads that cross at right angles.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Tartan has become the national identity and one of the most important symbols of Scotland. It is classic and traditional.

Black Watch
The Black Watch tartan was introduced as a standardized sett for the Highland Independent Companies, which later became the Black Watch in 1725. Its green and dark blue sett is still used today for several military units throughout the British Commonwealth and has been embraced for use in fashion and décor worldwide.

Royal Stewart
This is most likely the best-known tartan across the globe today and the basis of many of the Stewart Tartans. The Royal Stewart’s red, yellow, white, and blue was made famous as the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II.

Dress Stewart
In the Dress version of Royal Stewart, the predominant red squares are replaced by white. The Dress Stewart was often worn by female members of the Royal family for evening occasions.

Glen Plaid or Prince of Wales
Checked wool was first used in Scotland in the 19th century. Glen Plaid is two dark and two light stripes alternating with four dark and four light stripes, creating a crossing pattern of irregular checks. It was popularized by the Duke of Windsor and the Prince of Wales. Today it is prevalent in men’s suits.

Burberry is an international luxury brand that started out in the mid 1850s and uses the tartan look. The Burberry plaid was designed by the Thomas Burberry company, first for use as lining in its trench coats in the 1920s. It’s a corporate design used in clothing manufacturing but has become so popular that it’s one of the most copied trademarked designs in existence.

Buffalo Plaid
Buffalo plaid originated from Woolrich Woolen Mills. The company started in 1830 when John Rich, an immigrant from England, built his first woolen mill in Pennsylvania. The company began producing the Buffalo Check shirt around 1850. It’s a check pattern with large blocks formed by the intersection of two different colors, typically red and black. The shirt was an instant hit with workers and outdoorsmen and has been in the Woolrich line ever since. Apparently, this distinct style got its name because of a Woolrich designer who owned a herd of buffalo.

Tattersall takes its name from the Tattersall’s horse market in London, which opened in the 1700s. Blankets with the famous plaid were popular to use on horses, and the pattern has since become the traditional print of English horseback riders. It remains very versatile and is still popular on men’s shirts. The design is composed of regularly spaced, thin, even vertical and horizontal lines forming squares. The stripes are usually in two alternating colors, generally darker on a lighter background.

Gingham is a simple woven pattern typically made of two colors in a checked configuration, usually portraying a casual and fun appearance. The colors are commonly blue and white or red and white. There is no right or wrong side in gingham; it has the same look on both sides. This classic checked pattern was introduced in England by the Dutch via Malaysia in the 17th century. It was mass produced and found on everything from clothes to table linens.

Decorating with Plaid
Plaid has a seemingly infinite array of color mixtures and scale combinations. Keeping the pattern tight with a handful of colors will achieve a classic look. Or go more modern with an oversize print in just one or two colors. One trend is the inclusion of thin metallic accents in plaid. It’s not uncommon to see a pattern that used to work mostly in historic homes find its way into the most fashionable of settings.
Just as the colors and patterns are endless, so are the uses of plaid. Choose a favorite scheme and use it in a room as a focal point on a sofa, accent chair, rug, or window treatment. Or play with several different types of plaid on blankets, throw pillows, bedding, wall coverings, etc. The options are truly limitless.

Meredith Coopman of Meredith Coopman Design Studio has a background in architecture and interior design. You can reach her at meredith@meredithcoopman.com.