Blog Home Design Design Inspiration Mad for Plaid: The Intricacies of Plaid Throughout History

Plaid is one of the most widely varied patterns in the world. And, one of the oldest. Let’s take a closer look at this intricate pattern.

In the world of textiles, the simplest cloth uses a single color of thread in both the warp and the weft of a loom. A more complex textile introduces a second color to either the warp or the weft, creating a colored stripe. Gaining in complexity is a textile where the warp introduces a colored stripe, and the weft introduces another colored stripe.

This alternating, overlapping pattern is what we call plaid. Plaid is one of the most widespread and widely varied patterns in the world. It’s also one of the oldest. 

Tartan Plaid
Image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

Prehistoric Plaid

Unfriendly weather has a lot to do with why we know what we do about plaid’s long past. In western China, 3,000-year-old mummies were unearthed wearing plaid leggings. The figures had on vividly hued garments, pristinely intact thanks to the harsh landscape of this area called the Tarim Basin.

The region is a dry, inhospitable desert which helped prevent decomposition of buried fibers and bone. The mummies were of the Urumqi people, some of whom were tall, with Caucasoid features (it was a place were numerous cultures came together). The plaids these mummies wore were mostly of saturated reds and blues

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

The Urumqi—some of whom had red hair—traveled west and encountered Greeks and Romans who named them Celts. The Greeks documented some of the plaid garments worn by Celts, which looked a lot like a blueprint for old Scottish kilts (and a bit like the robes we see on Greek urns—hello contiguous design history.)

In 1st century Greece, the historian Diodorus Siculus mentioned Celts wearing checkered cloaks wrapped around their waist and fastened at the shoulder with a brooch—just like old Scottish kilts.

By 5th century Greece, Doric women wore what they called peplos. Peplos were pleated garments of wool, belted around the middle and draped over the shoulder—just like old kilts. But, ancient plaid cropped up in other places far from Greece and, once again, severe landscapes helped preserve it.

Tattersall Plaid
Image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

For instance, there’s a town in Austria called Hallstatt. Hallstatt had numerous salt mines and sat on a salt lake. Tucked between a mountainside and edged by water, it was hard to get to, and for thousands of years travelers could only reach it by foot.

Because Hallstatt had naturally salty soil and water, its ancient burial sites were perfectly preserved for eons. Eventually, the remains of humans from 1,000 B.C. (related to the Cherchen man in China) were discovered in Hallstatt.

Guess what they were wearing? Plaid. In impeccable condition and color.

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Hunting Plaids

By the Middle Ages, Celts were dwelling officially in Europe. Scotsmen wore plaid blankets pleated, belted, and thrown over one shoulder, fastened with a brooch. Sound familiar? By the 1700s, plaid was fully popular in Scotland.

Scottish spinners dyed their yarns with local plants from each area. These earthen tones lent camouflage to hunters who, in Scotland, designated specific plaids (the ones dyed with forest flora) “hunting plaids.” Hunting plaids were of muted earth colors, the same as forest lichen and leaves. 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Dress Plaids

As a counter to hunting plaids, Scottish weavers designed dress plaids that stood out boldly. Dress plaids were of the same designs (setts) as hunting plaids, but the background color was changed to a highly visible white (or occasionally yellow). Dress plaids were worn at dances and celebrations because they were far too flagrant for hunting.

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Madras Plaids

India produced another plaid starting in the 1200s called Madras. Madras is a colorful lightweight plaid, perfect for the hot climate it came from (an Indian city called Madras, now known as Chennai). Many historians postulate that Madras plaid dates back thousands of years, much the way it does in the Tamil Basin.

We know for sure that 13th century South Indian fisherman and field workers embraced Madras plaid for its extremely lightweight and inexpensive qualities. By the 1700s, Madras plaid arrived in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

It was made with dyes that were unusually vivid. These dyes were not colorfast, so they typically ran when you washed them. Because of this, Madras plaid was sometimes referred to as “bleeding plaid.” 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

Madras plaid became popular quickly. It was inexpensive and suitable for warm climates (unlike the European plaids of the time). Madras plaid had its own appealing look, often designed in airier, wider-striped setts. It came in a beautiful array of hot colors, a more exotic mix than the Scottish tones.

Poorer countries (and less wealthy citizens of richer countries) could easily afford Madras plaid, and workers on many continents soon dressed in it. The Nigerian group knowns as the Kalabari incorporated Madras into their wardrobes, as did the Igbos.

When the slave trade sent many Africans to the Caribbean against their will (many wearing Madras plaid), the plaid pattern became widespread in the Caribbean, as well. 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Scottish Plaids

Everywhere plaid was made, its setts varied endlessly. Changing even one thread color in a sett, or one bit of spacing, made each design different.

The Scottish military adopted plaid for its uniforms in the 1700s. Because it was worn in battles, it became highly political. So, from 1746 to 1782, English Parliament enacted the Dress Act, barring plaid outside of military use. 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

In the 1800s, Europe gained access to imported dyes from far-flung locations. Scottish plaids soon incorporated newly vibrant greens, indigos, and scarlets (from cochineal beetles). The Scots no longer blended into the countryside, but the plaids became altogether stunning.

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

In 1822, King George IV visited Scotland from mainland England. No royal had traveled there for almost two hundred years and many clans paraded around, wearing (what else?) plaid. The King was excited by the pattern and brought it back to England.

By the 1850s, Queen Victoria embraced plaid grandly. She ordered countless yards to be made into garments, lamp shades, upholstery, and more, all for her Scotland Balmoral Castle. She installed specially made tartans in every room. Queen Victoria went plaid mad!

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

Scottish plaid, being popular with English royalty at this point, was a symbol of high society. But, as a pattern’s lifespan unfolds, its message transmutes. Plaid in Europe became a preppy symbol (marketed by Pendleton, Brooks Brothers, Burberry). 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Lumberjack Plaid

When the Woolrich mill in America created an iconic red and black plaid, it became a lumberjack signifier.

Lumberjack Plaid
Image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

Catholic School Plaid

Plaid came to connote private school uniformity for thousands (probably millions) of Catholic school students. 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Queen Victoria’s Plaid

Queen Victoria’s plaid—more than a hundred years later—took on a new meaning when it was cut apart (literally) and safety-pinned together in an anarchic gesture by punk rockers. 

Christmas Plaid
Image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

The bleeding nature of Madras plaid was spun into an asset by a clever U.S. marketer who stated that his Madras plaids were so authentic, they were “guaranteed to bleed.”

Yellow Madras
Image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.

Grunge Plaid

Next, plaid became a symbol of the grunge movement. 

Images via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.


Over hundreds of years, plaid adjusted to its changing reputation and message, as any lasting design must. As far as what plaid symbolized for the Urumqi people, we’ll never know. But, humans across the globe are still invested in their historic design.


Patterns and color trends never die! Take a look at these:

Cover image via Shutterstock’s Plaid Pattern Trends Collection.