Guide to the Different Types of Plaid

by - Monday, September 19, 2022

Modern plaids come with a wide variety of stripe widths and color combinations — whatever you're looking for in a plaid, it's probably out there! Keep reading to learn the difference between plaids and checks and how to identify some of the most common patterns.

Plaids vs. Checks

Plaids and checks are two patterns with definite similarities — they're both stacked, square designs that form out of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines. However, they also have a few key differences:

Plaids: Plaids use lines in varying widths and colors to create a varied, complex pattern. The sequence of these lines, known as a "sett," repeats itself across the design. However, since the lines vary in width, the pattern doesn't have the neat symmetry of a checkerboard pattern. Instead, plaid patterns have more of a multicolored crosshatching effect.

Checks: Check patterns have a much simpler design. They typically only use two colors — though they may contain more — and the designs are always symmetrical, with the vertical and horizontal lines forming even squares. Depending on the stripes' widths, this can create a pattern resembling anything from a grid to a checkerboard.

4 Types of Plaid Patterns

Plaid originated with woven Scottish tartans, but the pattern has grown and evolved past its historical roots. Here are four popular plaid pattern names you might come across. Take a look and see if you can find your next favorite!

1. Tartan
As the original plaid, tartan has to be our first example! A tartan plaid has matching horizontal and vertical stripe patterns that create a perfectly symmetrical design. Like other plaids, each tartan uses stripes in multiple widths and colors, creating new hues where they overlap. However, this pattern is unique on our list since a plaid qualifies as a tartan based on what it represents rather than on the design itself. 

While a Scottish clan's tartans are exclusive to its members, anyone can wear universal tartans. While you may not have known the names of these plaids, you've certainly seen these two popular tartans before:
  • Royal Stewart: The Royal Stewart tartan has a red base with vivid yellow, green, blue and white stripes. Its bright, festive look makes it especially popular in the U.S. during the winter holidays.
  • Black Watch: Black Watch is an elegant black, navy blue and hunter green tartan pattern. Its rich formal design will remind you of private school uniforms and Ivy League libraries.
2. Glen Plaid
The Glen plaid's alternating light and dark stripes create patterns of irregularly sized checks, coming together in a combination of pin-checks and houndstooth. You'll typically find this pattern in muted colors — black and white is the classic color combination — but you may also see it incorporating colors like brown, cream or even thin stripes of green.

You're most likely to see this pattern in thick wool or flannel suits and other office-appropriate attire. With its subdued color scheme and use with heavier fabrics, you'll most often spot Glen plaid in the winter.

3. Madras Plaid
Madras plaid takes its name from the Indian city Madras, now Chennai. Unlike most types of plaid, Madras began as a hand-dyed pattern on lightweight woven cotton. Modern Madras plaids still use a pattern of brightly colored crisscrossing stripes on lightweight fabrics, making it a perfect design for summer! 

Considering its origin and vibrant, fun designs, it's no surprise that Madras plaid is a popular pattern for summer wardrobes. In addition to the ever-present Madras shorts, you'll likely find the design on lightweight shirts, bathing suits and sandals!

4. Argyle
Just like Madras, this one is a preppy standard! An argyle pattern uses diagonal lines and diamonds against a solid background color. The dotted or thin solid lines cross through the diamonds, intersecting at their centers.

There's some debate over whether argyle is technically a plaid or a check. Some argue that the pattern mimics a check's equally sized squares rather than a plaid's crosshatching. However, those on the other side of the argument claim that since it originated as Clan Campbell of Argyll's tartan, it's a plaid!

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, you're certainly familiar with this classic pattern. It turns up most often on knitted clothing, but you're also likely to see it make an appearance in home decor. Its popularity in knitted fabrics makes argyle most seasonally appropriate during the fall and winter.

4 Types of Checkered Patterns

Is your favorite plaid pattern really a check? You may be surprised by some of the names of the checkered patterns below!

1. Gingham
We all know gingham by name, but did you know that it's technically a type of material? Traditionally a cotton or cotton blend, gingham uses dyed yarn and a plain weave. The fabric is reversible and identical on either side, with vertical and horizontal colored stripes forming its iconic check pattern on a white background. 

Gingham uses a single color for the stripes. While pastels are popular choices — think of Dorothy's blue and white dress in The Wizard of Oz — a cheery red and white gingham tablecloth is a traditional picnic must. The pattern can come in various sizes.

While the gingham pattern is available in far more than apparel, people associate it with light, breathable cotton, keeping it a firmly spring and summer design.

2. Houndstooth
Houndstooth is a variation on Shepherd's Check — a pattern that creates small two-toned squares with its twill weave — where the squares' notched corners evoke the image of a dog's tooth. Originally a tweed local to the Scottish Lowlands, houndstooth made its first major fashion appearance in Christian Dior's 1948 Haute Couture spring/summer collection.

Houndstooth is a fashion staple, showing up in suits and jackets, wool coats and other fine apparel. In the fall, you're most likely to find it in its traditional black and white, but you may also see it in various colors, from subtle browns to vivid blues and reds. It's also spread beyond clothing and is available in wallcoverings, flooring and fabrics.

3. Windowpane
Those with a taste for minimalism may find that windowpane checks are a perfect fit. 

Rather than the solid squares you find in most check designs, a windowpane pattern features thin lines against a solid background. Most windowpane designs use only two colors — one for the background and another for the lines. The lines crisscross to form large boxes that resemble panes on a window. 

The windowpane pattern's limited use of color and understated design gives it an air of sophistication that makes it a popular choice for suits and suit jackets. With enough color combinations to suit any season, this pattern makes appearances year-round!

4. Buffalo Check
While its origin is up for debate, there's no denying that the buffalo check pattern is as iconic as gingham. Like gingham, this pattern uses horizontal and vertical stripes over a solid background, though there's some disagreement over whether the two designs differ in size, color or fabric. 

The large squares in a classic buffalo check are a traditional checkerboard red and black, and when it comes to fabric, you're most likely to find the pattern in flannel. Whether it's the fabric or its darker colors that make it popular in winter, as the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, you'll find buffalo checks appearing more and more. From blankets to thermoses to cozy pajamas, just about anything meant to keep you warm can feature this design.

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