Checks, Tartans, Plaid or Flannel? Regardless of what you call this classic pattern, we all have at least one piece of it in our wardrobe. Be that in a classic checked shirt, a casual flannel option, or even a subtle tartan jacket, the pattern has exploded over recent years. To celebrate Checked Shirt Day we are going to dive into the history of this pattern and suggest our favourites to add to your wardrobe this season.
So, what is the difference between these common names? Well, honestly, not a lot. Flannel refers to woven fabrics that are traditionally made from wool. Tartan was originally woven using wool, which would make it a flannel material. Check refers to the pattern design, so any pattern that uses vertical and horizontal stripes can be called a check. The word plaid is often used to describe a checked shirt, but the word plaid was originally used to describe a large piece of tartan fabric, fashioned into a cloak, that is worn alongside a kilt. But really, they can all be used to describe the same patterns, so call it which ever name you prefer!
We may associate tartan fabrics with Scotland and Kilts, and while Tartan was, and still is used in this Scottish garment, ancient tartan fabrics have been found as far a field as China. The tartan we know today was originally made in Scotland, and the variations in pattern and colour actually related to the weavers who created the fabrics by hand, not necessarily the people who wore it. Sections of the country would wear similar tartans, which is how a person’s identity became entangled with the fabric. The Independent Highland Companies, a militia installed to keep the peace, introduced a standard tartan that could be used to identify members at a glance, almost like a uniform, which is the start of tartan being used by the military, and this is still done today. Clan tartans are an example of an ‘invented tradition’ and it is widely regarded that they only date back to the 19th century.
At the start of the 19th century, and after the writings of James Macpherson and Sir Walter Scott, tartan had become a much more sort after textile, and in 1822, the pageantry invented clan specific tartans and made this the national dress to coincide with a visit from King George IV. This is where tartan really boomed in popularity and another royal visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert further fuelled the tartan trend. On this trip to Scotland, Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral Castle, and Prince Albert decided to use the red ‘Royal Stewart’ and the green ‘Hunting Stewart’ tartans in the remodelled castle interiors. These two tartans are still two of the most popular tartans today, with Queen Elizabeth II adopting the ‘Royal Stewart’ tartan as her personal pattern. Registration and naming of clan tartans began in 1815 and we now have up to 7,000 different tartans registered, with 150 new patterns being created each year. Tartan is no longer woven by hand, and the pace at which machines can make the fabric, escalated the number and variations available.
With such a rich history, tartan has always had a place in popular culture. Many designers have used the pattern in various ways, and different subcultures have taken the pattern and used it as a sign of rebellion and counter culture. From Dame Vivienne Westwood using traditional red tartans in the 70’s and the Sex Pistols wearing tartan trousers to court, to the Bay City Rollers in tartan flares and current royal family wearing tartan on royal visits, there are plenty of examples of traditional tartan meets modern interpretation.
Most of the Woodhouse team own at least one checked shirt, and we have a wide selection available if you fancy increasing your own selection ready for the cooler months. We love Barbour for all things autumn, and as an easy option to dress up or down. Try this classic Barbour shirt which features a large check and earthy tones, with a pop of red and white to really bring out the pattern. If you would prefer a smaller print, we can recommend this finer check from Portuguese Flannel. Portuguese Flannel shirts are always made with the very best quality fabrics which is why we love the brand (and you will too). We also recommend this Nudie Jeans shirt that sports a traditional tartan, Blackwatch, and a thicker fabric for an easy cold weather layer.