Before the mid-1960s when fashion skidded from sweater sets and poodle skirts to blue jeans and miniskirts, my sisters and I wore clothes sewn by our mom. She followed simple patterns to facilitate production in four sizes, and as her target demographic was not overly fussy about the finer details of couture, her fabric choices included a lot of colorful checks and plaids.
As Momma’s favorite warm-weather standard, the checks of gingham float through my memories of childhood summers in the form of elasticized bandeau-and-shorts sets, snazzy one-piece playsuits that tied at the shoulders, and shortie pajamas. My sisters and I aged out of gingham when we reached school age, graduating into a clothing world that included plaid dresses, plaid jumpers, plaid coats, plaid scarves, and plaid hair ribbons.
To my mind, checks evoke warm weather, Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore from The Wizard of Oz, the large-checked pants in gaudy colors favored by clowns, the black-and-white checkered flag of the Indy 500, and picnic tables covered by ubiquitous red-and-white check tablecloths. Plaids remind me of nippy weather, school uniforms, winter coats, and flannel nightgowns. Checks are made of lightweight cottons and linens, plaids of sturdier fabrics and wool. Checks celebrate simple times, lightheartedness, youth. Plaids intimate complexity, maturity, and heritage, as in the tartans of the Scottish Highlands.
Checks may be considered the most basic form of plaid, with vertical stripes of equal or almost-equal widths in two colors crossed at right angles by horizontal stripes woven in plain weave. To the weaver, however, the crux of the check-versus-plaid divide is more subtle. For those who breezily assume they can always tell plaid from checked cloth at a glance, I have one word: buffalo. To the casual observer, buffalo plaid is clearly not a plaid at all but checked, which it is, except that the fiber is traditionally wool instead of cotton, and the weave structure is 2/2 twill instead of plain weave; ergo, it is plaid.
When devising warps for checks, wind equal(ish) stripes in two colors, one of which shall be white for gingham or black for buffalo plaid (or check or whatever). Weft color order follows the warp pattern in width, not necessarily with a one-to-one warp-end-to-weft-pick ratio. Picks per inch depend on the tension of the warp and the firmness of the beat. (In my own work, this number varies widely, sometimes within the same project.) Additionally, other weave structures such as houndstooth and spider weave may be considered check patterns, although neither meets the above criteria.
The words plaid and tartan are technically synonymous, at least in the United States, both described as twilled woolen cloth with a pattern of bars or stripes of differing widths in at least two colors meeting at right angles. Weaving them provides practice in combining colors in an eye-friendly way.
Non-tartan plaid designs can be freewheeling and stash-friendly. Wind a warp of strips, stripes, and/or bars in any color scheme your heart desires. Most plaid patterns repeat forward and backward from a pivot point, but this is not a requirement. Weft rules are the same as for checks but with more color changes. I recommend a minimum of two warp ends per strip, stripe, or bar. While designs with single ends and picks exist (I once obsessed over an Aer Lingus lap blanket with such an arrangement), one warp end of a color crossed with one weft pick of the same color doesn’t make much of an impact in an overall design.
As for weave structure, I don’t think it matters much. As we have seen, buffalo plaid is really a twilled check. Tartans are the exception to this laissez-faire attitude to the color and structure of plaids. If you wish to weave authentic traditional tartans or register one of your own (to read about Gael Mueller’s adventures in this arena, see Resources), there are Rules To Be Followed.
A Celt at heart, I acquired a copy of James D. Scarlett’s The Tartan Weaver’s Guide early on in my weaving career. When I finally got around to reading the non-thread-count parts of Mr. Scarlett’s book, I realized that the several clan-badge scarves I’d woven were at best knock-offs in the style of tartans. (Thread count in this context is shorthand for—hold on to your tams—how many warp ends of which color are in a half-sett unit with two pivot points.) Traditionally, tartans are woven in worsted wool (worsted in this case referring to manufacturing process and not yarn size). Today, according to the Scottish Register of Tartans, tartans may be woven with any fiber at any sett, although to officially register a tartan, you must use only colors permitted by the Register. To make it easy, if you’re in North America, Camilla Valley Farm in Ontario, Canada, carries a line of tartan yarns imported from Scotland that include 23 colors on the Scottish Register of Tartans’ permitted color list.
In the foreword to The Tartan Weaver’s Guide, Mr. Scarlett laments, “Before commercialization spoiled the patterns and the early synthetic dyes spoiled the colours, tartans were works of abstract art composed by local weavers using the limited range of colours they could obtain from natural sources. The patterns were clear and bold and the colours neither gaudy nor artificially faded and their like is seldom equaled to-day. To reproduce them is a worthwhile aim for any weaver.”
In my opinion, any plaid or check project is worthwhile for any weaver. For me—winter or summer, freeform or structured, gingham or tartan, as child or woman—checks and plaids have been and remain part of the fabric of my life.