Search This Blog

Thursday, April 21, 2005

What is a "Plaid?"

Keep in mind that the word plaid comes from the Gaelic for "blanket." The original plaid was simply that -- a large woolen blanket worn wrapped around the shoulders in a cloak-like fashion to keep warm and dry. At the very end of the sixteenth century, the plaid began to be worn belted by the men. At this time, they were made from two lengths of cloth, some 4 or 5 yards long and 25" to 30" wide, seamed together to make one peice that was 50" to 60" wide. The length was gathered into folds and belted around the waist. The part that hung from the waist to the knee would later develop into the kilt. The upper portion was worn draped in various ways about the shoulders. This garment was called the feileadh-mhor (large wrap) or "belted plaid."

At some point in the late seventeenth century, or early eighteenth century, the two peices of the belted plaid began to be worn seperately. That is, the lower part was a 4 yard (on average) length of tartan some 25" wide, still worn gathered up and belted at the waist -- the feileadh-beag. The upper length of cloth was still worn around the shoulders in a plaid-like fashion, though it could now be easily removed indoors with the wearer remaining dressed from the waist down.

In the era of the modern, tailored kilt, we have come up with various styles of plaids that are meant to emulate the upper portion of the old belted plaid. The simplest, and most appropriate for general day wear, is not often seen today any longer. And this is just a pure and simply plaid -- that is, blanket -- sometimes called a shoulder plaid. Get a length of tartan cloth -- the exact deminsions don't really matter, but keep in mind that plaid means "blanket" so you will want a couple of yards at least. If you like the ends can be finished with a fringe of some sort. This is just worn folded up and draped across one shoulder, like you would carry a blanket to a picnic. If you want, to keep warm in cold weather, it can be unfolded and worn as a cloak, like the original plaids were.

What is more commonly seen is the "fly plaid." This is usually reserved for formal wear. There are a few different styles of this, but it is basically a peice of tartan cloth some 54" square (or something around that size). The edges are usually fringed. Often one corner is tailored into pleats, and it is this corner that you wear pinned to one shoulder with a large brooch. The remainder is left to hang free in back. One style of this has a tie at the lower end of the plaid that attaches it to your waist, making the garment, when worn, look more like the upper part of the old belted plaid.

And then we have the pipers and drummers plaids. These garments are essentially the same except one has more cloth than the other. Basically this is a length of tartan cloth some 3 to 5 yards long, with the width of the cloth pleated up and tailored down to something like 12 to 16". The two ends are fringed. This is worn over the doublet and all, across the chest and down the back, usually only by those in bands, sometimes just the pipe major and drum major.

What you want to avoid is a lady's sash. Sometimes those unfamiliar with Highland Dress will have this vague notion that something tartan should be seen on the man's shoulder and they buy a woman's sash for the purpose. But as women's sashes are only some 10" to 12" wide and usually 90" long, and most always made from a lighter weight cloth than a kilt would be, you can see how they would not compare to any of the garments described above.

Now, to confuse the issue even more, some retailers have of late introduced items, for men, called things like "mini-fly plaids" or "fun plaids" that are touted as fly plaids for men, but for more casual wear. These that I have seen have roughtly the same deminsions as a woman's sash, and in my opinion fall in the same category and should be avoided.

As a final note abbout the lady's sash -- the old adage about what shoulder she wears it on denoting rank in the clan is a myth. If you are right handed, it should be worn on the left shoulder, and vice versa. Why? Because it's more practical that way!


David Waterhouse said...

I enjoyed your essay on the plaid, but would add that pipers' and drummers' plaids differ rather more than you indicate. As a piper, I have and wear both kinds. The piper's plaid is a large fringed rectangle, like the blanket plaid you describe at the beginning of your essay, but with pleats stitched in where it passes across the chest. It has a short end and a long end; and to put it on, drape it and pin it properly is quite an art. There is more than one good way to do so, depending on the length and thickness of the plaid, whether the piper wears a left shoulder wing with his doublet, the type and size of plaid brooch, and so on. The plaid should not gape where it passes across the body; the short end should be out of sight; and the brooch should sit high, wide to the body and facing forward vertically. The drummer's plaid (sometimes called a half-plaid) does not go across the chest, and it is cut and stitched rather differently. One end, which fastens round the waist with an attached strip of tartan, has stitched pleats; it hangs behind, left of centre, and then billows out. The other end comes up through the left shoulder epaulette. and is cut and stitched to a thickened, fringed triangle where the plaid brooch is fastened to it. With both kinds of plaid I wear a piper's cross-belt. DAVID WATERHOUSE, Toronto

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


Thanks so much for your input, obviously from much experience!

Anonymous said...

I have been racking my brains and as a newbie Piper couldnt figure what the difference was between Mini Plaid, or Fly Plaid, but now know not to waste my money on either.
The drummers plaid is preferred by our Pipe Band, as the Pipers plaid is too bulky and on a real windy day with the drummers plaid secured at at the rear this makes you feel a little more secure on a blustery day...if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of any plaids. As a piper I have worn full and half plaids. They're just not practical. I have not seen a competitive band wearing plaids since the 80s, and i say good riddance! A long sleeved dress shirt and a vest is good enough for me!

Anonymous said...

We recently purchased a piper's plaid. the long kind? Well, anyway, we have no clue when to use it or where and with what.

I think plaids are beautiful and add to the formal or somber mood. Competitions and formal events are two different things. Yeah, vests are ideal for bands etc. but I think I would sooner go with a piper that decked to the nines. that's why we bought a plaid.

Now, we have a prince charlie jacket would that work with the plaid? and who should buy a doublet? My daughter wants to pipe at weddings and such.

Garrett said...


As I see its been some time since you have posted this blog spot I found it extremely helpful in finding other names for the Plaid. As I read "So you are goin to wear a kilt?" and other blog postings, I have decided that I want to invest in a (shoulder) Plaid for my day wear. It gets cold in NH and I need to a way to keep warm without putting on a heavy (ugly) winter jacket.

My question is, where can I find (shoulder) plaids? I have contacted by kilt maker and they do not make then, nor can I find a place that makes just plaids, only piper plaids. I do pipe, but I do not want a pipers plaid, I want a plaid for leisure/everyday wear. Please let me know if you know where I can get a plaid made, or atleast get tartan to make it myself.



Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


A simple plaid as you describe really needs be nothing more than a few yards of cloth, fringed at the ends. You can make this yourself by just buying the yardage. There are many places to buy tartan cloth, but I'd reccomend shopping from the Scottish Tartans Museum. It's a non-profit museum funded by gift shop sales. Plus they have a wide variety of material availble to purchase by the yard. It's best to get the same weight and from the same mill as your kilt.