Skip to Content

Tartan vs. Plaid Clothing

Complete your wardrobe by getting tartan and plaid outfits, plus learn the difference between the these two fabrics here!

Young girl wearing tartan shirt.

 I am getting ready for an occasion with special friends. Look into the closet where there are several tartan pieces of clothing, or they are plaid, and then I am stumped. Do I wear tartan or plaid, and what is the difference anyway?

This article explains the clothing difference between the two materials. They are so similar, yet so different. Read further, discover all the differences, and be ready for your next big occasion!

What is tartan clothing?

Tartan texture.

If we want to use a technical description, “Tartan is a colorful design with many repeating colors of blocks and stripes technically called a Sett.” I can’t say for you, but when I think of tartan, the first image that pops into my mind is a Scot wearing kilts who could play the bagpipe.

Another technical way of explaining tartan material is “Tartan cloth is patterned with vertical, horizontal, and crisscrossed bands in various colors.” Okay, now we have that out of the way, but how is tartan worn today?

When is tartan clothing worn today?

Tartan skirt for men.

Wearing this beautiful, fun clothing can be worn for any occasion. Unless you are of Scottish lineage, the colors and paying respect to the family or clan tartans are not required. However, it is appropriate to wear the tartan colors of your family’s clan name or the area of Scotland you associate with.  

What is plaid clothing?

Amazon Essentials Women's Long Sleeve Ruffle Detail Flannel Shirt, Auburn Black Mini Buffalo, X-Small

The technical description for plaid fabric is “plaid is an outer loose garment cloth with a pattern that is striped and variegated worn by Highlanders.” Or, a more current-day description “plaid is comprised of long stripes running vertically and horizontally and intersecting with each other, forming both large and small squares.” But it goes back to the Scottish Highlands.

Plaid can be any fabric with long stripes running horizontally and vertically that intersect to create a check pattern. Typically, the fabric weave creates the pattern, or it can be a printed pattern. I remember my favorite shirt in high school was my cotton Madras Plaid.

The Madras pattern was the current fad, and I loved the stylish look.

What are the differences between tartan and plain?

 Clothing Construction

Men's outfit idea with tartan shirt.

Are you as confused as I am about the differences between tartan and plaid? First, a technical description.

Tartan or Plaid Construction

Lined up tartan and plaid shirts.

Tartan clothing construction can be technically defined as woven wool cloth. Scottish men wear crisscrossing patterns as a kilt representing their clan. The “plaid” is technically part of the Scottish costume draped over the shoulder with similar clan patterns.

Of course, today, the terms tartan and plaid are any fabric or textile featuring crisscross patterns and can be used interchangeably.

Clothing Materials
Closet full of plaid and tartan shirts.

Tartan Clothing

Tartan clothing is traditionally made from woven wool dyed with associated tartan clan colors and patterns. Although originally made from wool, tartan today can be constructed from wool, cotton, cotton-polyester, and many other fabrics.

Plaid Clothing

Plaid clothing is created from wool, cotton, or cotton blends. I have my favorite plaid flannel shirt in my closet, so warm and comfortable with the perfect combination of crisscrossing colors. Heavy plaid jackets or kilts use thick woolen yarn.

And to be a little more confusing, all plaids are checks, but not all checks are considered plaid. Say what? To clear this up a bit, some definitions:

Plaids VS Check Patterns

Plaid shirt short sleeves on white background.

Although plaids and checks are both types of tartans, there are subtle differences. The pattern is what distinguishes the two. Think of the check pattern being on a symmetrical square, laid out much like a chessboard and typically with two colors. 

On the other hand, plaids have more intersecting lines without the symmetrical order of check patterns. Plaids can have multiple colored lines that intersect to create a more complex pattern. The numerous lines intersecting without symmetry is the quickest way to identify plaid patterns as check patterns have more orderly and square designs.

How Durable are Tartans and Plaids

Tartan long sleeves shirt on white background.

Usually, tartans and plaids are very durable, thanks to the wool, cotton, or cotton blend fabrics utilized. Wool would be the most durable and most comfortable, especially when made of long thread worsted wool. Cotton is a durable cloth, as is linen, made from flax plant fibers.

Linen and cotton are typically desirable for warmer weather, while wool is the choice for colder weather.

Brief History of Tartans and Plaids

A rack of plaid and tartan shirts.

Since we have read this far, we know some of the rich Scottish traditions associated with tartan clothing and its cousin plaid. Here are a few more historical tidbits about the life and times of tartan and plaid clothing.

History of Tartans

Tartan headgear on white background.

This title even has a historical ring to it, and well, it does. The first recorded mention of tartan is found in 1538 when King James V mentioned purchasing “three ells of Heland (Highland) Tartans” that were considered a luxury textile.

The Scottish Highland Clans established the colors associated with their clan, and in 1587, Hector Maclean is recorded as purchasing tartan with black, white, and green stripes, representing the Maclean hunting tartan. Still, one of the most popular tartans is the Royal Stewart red tartan favored by Queen Elizabeth II.

History of Plaids

Tartan long sleeves shirt for men.

Plaid has a unique history and is inextricably tied to tartan’s history. Plaid was first introduced into the fashion world in the late 17th century as a statement for fashionable Scottish society. The plaid pattern was fashioned initially as kilts and became a symbol of Scotland’s rebellion against England.

Plaid became a volatile symbol banned after the 1746 Scottish rebellion for four decades. 

Today, plaids are still very popular. One of the most popular plaids is the “buffalo plaid,” going back to the 1800’sl when it first appeared in Scotland. The material was introduced to the United States in the 1800s from Scotland as a warm blanket cloth.

Upon arriving, it quickly became a popular material for garments, and “buffalo plaid” is still popular today.

Are tartan and plaid still popular today?

Biker wearing plaid shirt, jeans and boots while holding a helmet.

Plaids and tartan are still stylish in the 2020s and have made somewhat of a comeback. So, when an artist wears a plaid outfit to the 2021 MTV Awards, you know it has arrived back on the scene!


Neatly folded plaid shirts on wooden background.

Although I like a bright, tasteful colored pattern, I lean more to plaid than tartan. Maybe it is the more orderly look of the plaid design or the multitude of choices of colors beyond a tartan clan design. Nevertheless, I prefer wearing plaid, which is my choice of the two.

However, I am sure of one thing. When it comes to the holiday season, I will be wearing my Royal Stewart tartan red vest!