Stripes are the backbone of woven design—the workhorse of colorwork. When warp and weft stripes meet, beautiful things happen.
Perhaps the three most common terms used to describe woven colorwork are stripe, check, and plaid.
In general, I try to be precise with my language while trying to avoid some of the traps of being too pedantic or overly prescriptive. During the past weave-along, I caught myself throwing the term “plaid” around a lot. In my mind, I was thinking of a plaid as being a striped pattern with thick and thin stripes that is woven in the same order that it is threaded.
After the weave-along was over, it occurred to me that I was not using that term well. The ruana featured an asymmetrical check pattern, but was it a plaid? I decided to check myself (pun intended).
Plaids Are Checks
Many of us have a specific kind of pattern that springs to mind when we say the word “plaid”. Dictionary.com’s first definition of plaid is any fabric woven of differently colored yarns in a crossbarred pattern”. Merriam-Webster’s definition is similar, its third definition more closely matched my thinking, “A pattern of unevenly spaced repeated stripes crossing at right angles.” This seemed more specific as “uneven” being a key term. However, Merrian-Websters, first defintion referenced its cultural significance to the Scottish Highland region, “A rectangular length of tartan worn over the left shoulder as part of the Scottish national costume.”
I then went to my bookshelf. I have three books that I turn to first when I’m trying to find the root meaning of textile terms, Introductory Textile Science by Marjory L. Joseph, my college science textbook; The Encyclopedia of Hand Spinning by Mabel Ross; and The Primary Structures of Fabric by Irene Emery. Between these three, I generally find some kind of consensus about terminology, a place to start. Imagine my surprise when none of these books have the term “plaid” in the index. Pondering this, I decided that plaid is more of a design term, and therefore, not a process term that these books would cover.
I proceeded to go through my bookshelf and started looking in every textile-related book I have for the term plaid in the index. There were not many mentions until I got to Hand-Loom Weaving by Luther Hooper, first published in 1937.
Plaid, it seems, is as much a cultural term as it is a design term, and can mean different things in different contexts. Scotch plaid/tartan is culturally specific to the Scottish Highlands. Hooper references that the “variegated webs made by Sidonian women” mentioned by Homer, are believed to be a kind of tartan.
“Variegated” is a term that cropped up in a couple of other books that, by its description, meant this kind of tromp as writ cloth features stripes of varying widths. These books were definitely not referring to the “variegated” coloring that springs to the mind of the modern weaver, or at least not what springs to my mind.
It seems that my original definition holds, but it lacks specificity. A recognizable plaid seems to contain thick and thin lines to form a pattern that references itself—a box, within a box, within a box. Culturally a tartan or regional-specific plaid, has identifiable colors that ground the design in a geographic location or cultural clan. This is not how I would describe the back panel of the ruana. A more precise term would be asymmetrical checks.(I’m sure there is some definitive source for the history of plaid-like patterning, so if anyone knows of one, feel free top pop it in the comments.)
What Are Checks?
Checks are broadly defined as a cloth made of warp stripes intersected with weft stripes, still largely trop as writ. There are many recognizable checked patterns—gingham, houndstooth, buffalo, madras, windowpane, pin, and yes, plaid.
I love these kinds of rabbit holes. Teachers are always being schooled and re-schooled. No matter what specific ways stripes, checks, and plaids manifest themselves in the landscape of woven cloth, I find myself pretty happy to explore their ways—each pattern leads to the next.
4 thoughts on “Stripes, Checks, and Plaid Oh, My!”
Tartan is not only in the Scottish Highlands, If you search Clan Maps of Scotland you will find Scotland was split into different areas based on the clans that lived and ruled that area. Each clan has their tartan which will have different colours and patterns but all are what you (Americans) would call plaid. My surname is Armstrong and that clan was at the bottom of Scotland just above the English border, the Armstrong tartan is blue, green and a tiny bit of red. Each tartan has the cross hatching of the different sized coloured stripes. I don’t believe there is such a thing as Scotch Tartan. Perhaps in America they have chosen one of the clan tartan or created their own and labelled it Scotch tartan? The Highlanders do have slight differences to the rest of Scotland, and their kilts extended to a piece over the shoulder and their shirts are different more casual, looser and with cord lacing at the top. People who own or rent their tartan for ceilidhs, weddings, etc can choose whether they hire the Highlander dress or regular Scottish dress. A Scottishperson would usually try to hire or own their kilt in their clan’s tartan, although not always possible. In the UK the term plaid is not really used.
Thanks for this. “Scottish” is a more inclusive term. And this exemplifies the deep cultural meaning of a Tartan plaid and not the generalized design of the dictionary definition of “plaid”.
There certainly isn’t such a thing as a Scotch Tartan in Scotland as Scotch is the drink!
I understand that the Americans don’t really appreciate the difference and use the word more loosely, but to my late Scottish father-in-law who left Glasgow in the 1930s and to my Scottish son-in-law living in the Highlands overlooking Loch Ness, with his own collection of rare single malts, Scotch is liquid and everything else is Scottish.
You are right! And this is why I almost didn’t write this post because I so aware when it comes to these things there are so many ways to get it wrong, but then I thought that is sort of my point. I was not using my words well and wanted to take a deeper dive into the terminology and messed up my adjectives twice.
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