Tartan vs Plaid - Is There a Difference?

“All tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan.” ~ Scot Meacham Wood, House Beautiful

What Is Plaid?

A plaid is a long piece of cloth that is made of wool and worn over the shoulder. So while the interlocking woven pattern of colored stripes is tartan, the material itself is the plaid. The word plaid derives from the word ‘plaide’ which describes the garment preceding the modern kilt; it would have been worn between the late 16th century and the early 19th century.


According to Scottish tartan museum, “This belted plaid was a length of double width material (often tartan, but not always) 3 to 6 yards in length, gathered into folds and belted around the waist.” Eventually, the word plaid was used to describe any sort of blanket-type garment and as blankets themselves. It is also believed that the word plaid came from the Gaelic ‘plaide’ which means blanket.

What Is Tartan?

Simply put, tartan is a checked pattern. The pattern has stripes that meet at a 90-degree angle, with the vertical stripes being exact duplicates of the horizontal stripes. The pattern of cloth the garment is actually made from is tartan. The size, color or pattern can differ in a plaid, and the stripes are not the same in both directions.

In the early days, tartan had different purposes, with many clans wearing their own “dress” and “hunting” tartans. The dress tartans were meant to be flashy, while the hunting tartans differed a bit from the main clan tartan, typically with one of the main background colors changed white. Dress tartans were, and still are, worn on formal occasions and extremely popular at weddings.

National Tartan Day

In 1998 the United States declared April 6th National Tartan Day, with Canada following suit in 2010. This honors the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, which occurred on April 6, 1320.

While National Tartan Day is not celebrated the same in Scotland, it holds a special place in the hearts of Americans as their own Declaration of Independence was modeled on the Declaration of Arbroath. “It is significant, too, that nearly half of the signatures of the American declaration had Scottish roots, while out of the 13 original United States, 9 had governors with Scottish ancestry.”

Tartan Fun Facts

There are probably over 4,000 unique tartans. 

“Sewn wi’ a hate needle an’ a burnin’ thread” is a reference regarding a garment that has been made poorly.