Tartan vs Plaid vs Check

Do you know the difference?

written by Melissa Wolck


Tartan. Plaid. Check. What is the difference?

Today, the terms Tartan, Plaid & Check tend to be used interchangeably, but each of these iconic patterns is in fact different. These classic patterns are some of the most widely recognized and versatile textile designs in the world. They have been popular throughout history, across cultures and continue to be staples in both fashion and interior design.

Before we begin, let's establish a commonality between these three fabric designs. Tartans, plaids and checks are all comprised of horizontal and vertical stripes. They intersect one another at 90 degree angles creating grid-like patterns.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's discuss some of their origins and differences. This could get a little tricky. So bear with me for a moment.


Tartan is a pattern consisting of multiple colored criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands. The pattern of the stripes running vertically is duplicated EXACTLY on the horizontal axis. Where the different colors overlap, new colors are created. You've seen it many times. I'm sure. It is a beloved classic pattern that evokes feelings of tradition and nostalgia. In fact, the oldest know tartan fabric dates back 3,000 years!


Traditionally, Plaid referred to a specific type of garment worn by the Scottish to protect them from cold, harsh winters. The word plaid is derived from the Gaelic word Plaide, meaning blanket. This oversized wool garment also known as a "belted plaid" or "great kilt" was worn around the waist and then draped over the left shoulder. The pattern woven into the fabric was, you guessed it, Tartan. Scottish clans each had their own type of tartan such as, Black Watch or Royal Stewart. Often times, the same clan would have two different types of tartans, one for hunting and one for dress. 

Today, the term Plaid refers to patterns inspired by traditional tartan designs, and the term tartan now refers to a type of plaid. "Plaid" replaced "tartan" once the patterns became popular with British and American textile manufacturers who would recreate fabrics inspired by authentic tartans. Plaids consist of crossed horizontal and vertical bands in two or more colors. The main difference between traditional tartans and other types of plaids has to do with the pattern's repeat. In regard to plaids, the pattern of the vertical stripe does not necessarily have to match the pattern of the horizontal stripe like the pattern of a tartan. Plaids have many variations of band width, repeat and/or color.


Check patterns are simpler than plaids. They generally consist of two alternating colors, but not always. Checkered patterns are symmetrical, consisting of crossed horizontal and vertical lines that form equal sized squares. Each line is intersected by the same kind of line in equal intervals and widths. There are many different types of check patterns such as Gingham, Buffalo and Windowpane. Take a look at some of Greenhouse’s wonderful check patterns below.

Can you differentiate between a check, a plaid and a tartan? Let's see.



Which of these is a Tartan? A Check? A Plaid?

If you guessed... 

A is a Plaid, B is a Check and C is a Tartan... 

You are Correct! 

You are on your way to becoming an expert!

Check back with us to find out more about Checks, Plaids, and Tartans in upcoming Greenhouse Fabrics Blog posts! 

I leave you with this....

"All tartans are plaids, but not all plaids are tartans." -Scott Meacham Wood, King of Tartan, in an interview with House Beautiful