Tartan is a fabric which is woven with an assortment of stripes in varying widths and colors set at right angles to each other. In some parts of the world, the pattern is called “plaid.” The distinctive checked pattern of tartan is closely associated with Scotland, which has been weaving tartan for centuries. Most cultures actually demonstrate a history of weaving textiles with checked patterns, since they are relatively easy to weave and also quite striking.
The word comes from a Latin word, tyrius, for “cloth.” A tartan can be woven with any textile, although wool is common since it takes dye well and also insulates the body in the cold regions of the world where tartan is popular. Wool can also be woven in varying thicknesses, allowing people to wear more lightweight wool tartans in warmer weather. Tartan can also be made from linen, cotton, or silk. Tartan is usually worn with neutral colors, since the bold blocks in the color in the pattern have a potential for clashing.
In the United Kingdom, “plaid” is commonly used to describe a scarf, throw, or blanket. It comes from a Gaelic word, plaide, which means “blanket.” In others areas of the world, plaid is a generic word for the tartan pattern. In many of these regions, a “tartan” is associated specifically with Scottish clans, while plaid is an all-encompassing name for any type of checked textile. This can lead to some confusion, but the meaning intended is usually clear from context.
The association of specific tartans with particular clans began formally in the 1800s. Originally, each region of Scotland had a regionally specific tartan pattern. The clans which dominated each region slowly adopted these tartans to represent their specific family and region, and in 1815, registration of individual clan tartans was initiated. Tartan also became a symbol of Scottish heritage and pride, and continues to be associated with Scottish culture.
Many sewing stores sell tartan fabrics for sewing and crafts. Clothing made from a tartan pattern is also readily available in many stores, in the form of skirts, jackets, pajamas, and everything in between. People with Scottish heritage who want to celebrate it sometimes research their genealogy to determine whether or not they have a clan tartan, or which tartan would have been worn in their area. Research of a tartan can sometimes reveal an interesting and colorful history, along with a family coat of arms.