Cloaks and Plaids

Yesterday’s post provoked some comments from a Scottish friend of mine. These had the consequence of reminding me I had intended to blog about the plaid as a logical follow up to my post on cloaks.
The first obstacle here is one of terminology. “Plaid” essentially means “blanket”. A “belted plaid” was a blanket held in position by a belt. At some time in America’s past tartan patterned woollen shirts made of blanket material became commonly referred to as “plaid shirts” and the word got redirected to refer to the pattern rather than the material. Americans consider “plaid” and “tartan” to be synonymous but historically it will be seen that this was not the case and this use of “plaid” is inaccurate and confusing. In this article plaid refers to a garment, not a pattern.

The plaid will be more familiar to many people in two derivative forms. One is the kilt, a relatively modern addition to Scottish costume. The kilt simulates the appearance of wearing a plaid without the rather involved procedure of putting one on. The other derivative is a tartan sash worn as part of some Scottish costumes and uniforms. This simulates the upper part of a plaid. The plaid is sometimes called a “great kilt” but as far as I am aware this is a relatively modern term and likely to be a backronym that came into use after kilt wearing became common.
So what is a “real plaid”. As the name suggests, it is a woollen garment, effectively a blanket 60” across and 4 to 5 yards in length. A common method for turning this into a garment is to lay an belt on the ground and lay the plaid over it. The plaid is then folded and pleated to the wearer’s satisfaction. He then lies on the plaid, gathers it around him and fastens the belt to secure it.

As commonly seen, a plaid appears to be of two parts. That below the belt resembles a kilt (or in fact the reverse is truer!). The upper part passes up the back and over one shoulder as a sort of sash, often held by a large broach.
In actuality the upper part of the plaid can be spread out to cover both shoulders and keep the wearer warm, much in the same manner as any cloak. If it was raining or especially cold a fold of plaid might be passed over the head too.

This was not the limit of the plaid’s abilities, however. A Scotsman who found himself outdoors at night simply lay down, unbuckled his belt and rearranged his plaid so he was cocooned in a capricious blanket. As many readers will know, wool remains reasonably warm even when wet. The wool used to make plaids had the lanolin left in it so the cloth had a certain degree of water repellence. Next morning the Scot would rearrange his plaid, fasten his belt and stand up and be on his way.
As you may now appreciate, the plaid was an interesting variation of a cloak. While on the topic of Scottish clothing, a few interesting facts uncovered in my researches. Contrary to the usual Scottish jokes about kilts, it was apparently acceptable to wear a plaid over trews. I have seen contemporary illustrations of this but unfortunately have not located any on-line. For a big chunk of history, however, the Scotsman did not wear much more than his plaid. Socks and other foot coverings took some time to catch on, apparently and the Scots were noted for going bare foot and bare legged. Their main garment, other than their plaid was a shirt dyed with saffron. Apparently the latter had insect repellent qualities.