What’s the Difference Between Tartan and Plaid?

My boyfriend was in the U.K. last week, exploring London, Edinburgh, York, Oxford, and a few other choice day trips. As you can imagine, I am full of conflicted feelings about it. I may have cried once as I was drooling over his vacation photos.

A few of these photos are 360-degree virtual reality panoramas, complete with sound, only viewable with his Google Cardboard goggles. When I put on the goggles to view a panorama of the esplanade outside Edinburgh Castle, I had to catch my breath! It really was almost like I was there.

I turned around to look back on the Royal Mile and saw a familiar red and white building off to the left, which I remembered as the historic building that now houses the Edinburgh Tartan Weaving Mill and Experience, formerly the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving and before that it served as the reservoir for the entire city of Edinburgh! I was immediately overcome with the desire to visit that place again now that I’ve started learning to weave.


Dozens of spools set up as a tartan warp is wound at the Edinburgh Tartan Weaving Mill and Experience. Photos by Christina Garton

Learning about the Edinburgh Tartan Weaving Mill and Experience, I had a question called to mind that has bothered me for a while, but never enough to actually look it up: what’s the difference between tartan and plaid?

Many of you more experienced weavers may already know this, but all tartans are plaid. However, not all plaids are tartan! Both plaids and tartans are woven of stripes that meet at 90-degree angles. Tartans have an identical pattern of stripes running vertically and horizontally, resulting in overlapping square grids. Regular plaids are not necessarily the same in both directions, with variation in color, size, and/or pattern of stripes. In addition, tartan is almost always woven in a two-over-two twill pattern, which forms the illusion of new colors blended from the original ones.


The wound tartan warp.

In Scotland, the word “plaid” comes from the Gaelic word for blanket, and it’s used to describe the large kind of kilt worn over the shoulder, not the fabric pattern. So, if you ever take a trip to visit the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Company, be sure not to make that rookie mistake and mind the difference between tartan and plaid!

Happy Weaving!

Featured Image: Close up of the Moffat family tartan. Photo by Honk Squeak.

Last updated November 30, 2018.

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