Words by Eric Twardzik.
The first thing you need to know is: everything you think you know about plaid is a lie. Tartan isn’t plaid. Tartan is a pattern. That pattern you’ve been calling plaid this whole time – that’s tartan. Plaid is an item of clothing, specifically the long piece of tartan fabric worn as part of Highland dress. Also, buffalo plaid? Not a plaid or a tartan. (It’s a check.) And we know… it hurts to hear.
Still, the famous pattern worn by everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Al from Home Improvement has attracted more myths, misconceptions and cultural baggage than any other textile pattern on earth.
Tartan was made famous in U.S. thanks to the mass emigration of Scots to the new world, and we’ve since made a fine mess of the terminology. Somehow, Americans mistook the plaid—a tartan blanket worn over the shoulder in traditional Highland dress—as a pattern, and began referring to tartans as such.
Tartan refers to the category of patterns that we normally call plaid. You know the interlocking stripes of different widths and colors against a solid background? That’s tartan, not plaid, and an individual pattern of tartan is called a “sett.”
The first appearances of tartan in Scotland go back to the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., but weren’t widely adopted by the people of Northern Scotland—aka Highlanders—until the 17th century (the costume designers of Braveheart missed the mark by about four hundred years).
You may have heard that certain regions produced unique patterns, but that’s a myth. However, tartan was such a signifier of Scottish pride that the English forbade Scots from wearing tartan for 36 years with the Dress Act of 1746 because they thought it would inspire rebellion abroad.
Ironically, at the same time, tartan became pretty popular in England. Initially, mid-18th century commercial producers used numbers to differentiate the many patterns. But numbers don’t sell like a story does, so the makers assigned Scottish clan or place names to each sett—popularizing the idea that every tartan belonged to a specific clan.
This myth was “set” in stone – get it? – in 1822 when King George IV threw a lavish birthday celebration for himself in Edinburgh and asked the clan leaders to attend wearing their hereditary tartans. The only issue? Clans didn’t have hereditary tartans—a problem each fixed by either re-naming existing setts or creating entirely new ones for the occasion.
Firmly ensconced in England, tartan made its way onto other shores. It was worn by Scottish Highland Regiments serving in India, inspiring textile makers in the city of Madras (now Chennai) to create imitation patterns using intensely colorful local dyes. (Which is where, as we’re sure you guessed, the Madras pattern gets its name.)
Today the American penchant for tartan is more than just a fad: it’s been encoded into law. Since 1988, nineteen states—including Wisconsin—have adopted an official state tartan. And Lands’ End? We have three just for us.