The Battle of Culloden (1746), David Morier. Count the tartans on the Jacobites!
When we were planning the Fall 2010 issue of Interweave Knits way back in October of 2009, I saw plaids everywhere. Woven plaids had been big on the runway for a couple of years, but I was drawn, too, to plaid's historical roots - it resides at a funny intersection of textile heritage, history, and technique.
The word plaid, which we use in the US to talk about pretty much any checked piece of cloth, actually comes from the Scottish Gaelic word for 'blanket', or other generic cloth. Tartan, from the French tiretain, or 'woven cloth', is now generally used to describe the familiar crisscrossing perpendicular lines, closely associated with Scottish kilts. There's a lot of complicated history associated with tartans and their role in regional politics and clan identity (the British government even briefly banned the wearing of tartans in 1746 in order to squelch and control Gaelic culture). Most surface design doesn't come with that kind of baggage.
Breacan Swing Coat
In woven plaids, the vertical and horizontal threads are woven with a twill weave, which produces diagonal lines (the denim of your jeans is a twill weave). Different colors in the vertical and horizontal threads blend with each other where they meet, creating new colors that contribute to the tremendous richness of even very simple plaid color combinations.
But in the knitted plaids in the Check and Stripe story of the Fall 2010 issue of Knits, plaid gets interpreted in all kinds of ways:
in straightforwardly blending and shifting color;
in raised ridges, texture, and intarsia;
Slanting Plaid Stole
George Street Pullover and Cowl
in conceptual eyelets;
and in after-the-fact embellishment.
Fresh knitting challenges, interesting new directions - knitted tartans could keep you busy for a long time. Plaid forever!
PS - the wikipedia article on tartan is worth reading if you're interested in the history of woven plaid. And if you'd like to plan color combinations or stripe sequences for these projects, the Tartan Maker is great fun.