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Plaid means different things, depending on where in the world one is. In North America, plaid is a cross-hatched pattern created by weaving or dyeing perpendicular strips and bands of color. In the United Kingdom, a plaid is a blanket or shawl with a similar pattern. The intended meaning is usually clear from the context. Both meanings are derived from the same root word, and the British English meaning is much older.
There are two ways to make plaid. Classically, the pattern was created by weaving a twill pattern with different colored threads. The pattern incorporates criss-crossing bands and thin stripes of color which create a checked pattern when the piece is finished. Plaid can also be made by dying the fabric, although it can be difficult to create a precise pattern with dyes.
”Plaid” comes from the Scots Gaelic word plaide, which means “blanket.” The Celts were among the first people in Europe to weave and dye in multiple colors, creating bright, festive clothing which was often a source of commentary when people from other regions of Europe visited. Celtic men and women both wore heavy wool plaids draped across their bodies to protect themselves from harsh and damp weather. Over time, the plaid came to be associated specifically with Scotland, a bastion of Celtic culture.
In the United Kingdom, the pattern of a plaid is called a “tartan.” Within Scotland, many tartans are associated with specific clans and families, and some of them have been worn for centuries. Tartan patterns are commonly used in school uniforms, product labeling, and military uniforms across the United Kingdom. Tartan blankets and shawls are also readily available, serving much the same function that plaids did centuries earlier. And, of course, tartans are used to make kilts, garments which are closely associated with Scottish culture and heritage.
In North America, unique plaid patterns are not specifically associated with particular families, although some people who are proud of their Scottish heritage may wear family tartans. Bright plaid patterns can be found on all sorts of things including blankets, sheets, skirts, and shawls. Plaid is also associated with some specific subgroups in American culture; many loggers, for example, wear plaid flannel to stay warm in the woods, and plaid has been adopted by the grunge and punk movements as well.
One of my favorite stories about the tradition in plaids and tartans is about the College of Wooster, a small liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio.
Begun by Scottish Presbyterians in the 1800s, several decades later, they were going to integrate female students and the band director wanted to include them in the marching band (which is complete with an impressive bagpipe and Scottish drum section, as well as highland dancers). The president of the school said, "I am not having girls marching around my field in pants!"
So he made them all wear kilts- plaid "skirts"- which the entire band still does to this day.