Plaid is one of the world’s widest-spread and most-recognizable patterns, appearing on everything from shirts and scarves, to kilts and hats, to rugs and wall-hangings. Originating in northern Scotland, the iconic fabric has existed for thousands of years, and been worn by millions.
Technically, “plaid” isn’t the correct word for the pattern that’s usually known by that name – the correct word for the ancient patterns would be “tartan,” with “plaid” meaning a type of heavy cloth cloak worn to protect travelers from the driving snow and pouring rain of Scottish winter. Individual Scottish clans each have their own associated tartan pattern, with the history of each quite literally woven into the fabric.
Most likely, the tartan patterns that would later become synonymous with Scottish clans arose out of simple necessity. Weavers making wool garments would have had only a limited number of dyes and colors available to them, and out of that palette, would have created some of the only possible patterns, which later became artistically elaborated and passed down from generation to generation. As the patterns became more and more associated with the regions they originated from, the tartans grew to symbolize clans from those regions.
In the 18th century, tartans were first used a military uniform in the Scottish rebellion against England, and after the rebellion was defeated, the patterns were banned for almost a century.
For more information on the origins of tartan patterns, and to learn about the fascinating 3000-year old mummies that bear the earliest examples of the cloth, check out the Tartan Authority or the Smithsonian!