An overhead view of tartan fabric.

Peek behind the curtain of a history thousands of years old, romantic legends of princes and warriors, clans and kilts -- and tartan is purely a type of fabric, specifically a particular plaid. It's a matter of weave and of pattern, but also, traditionalists argue, a matter of Scottish pride and heritage.

Blocks of Color, Patterns of History

In "House Beautiful," designer Scot Meacham Wood describes it simply: "All tartans are plaid, but, not all plaids are tartan." Plaids are patterns of stripes that meet at right angles. With tartans, the horizontal and vertical patterns match, creating a perfect grid. This blending of design and overlap of color can create thousands of potential patterns.

Weaving a Legend

The Scottish Register of Tartans, established by Scottish Parliament, maintains an official record of tartan designs old and new. The older Scottish Tartans Authority lists 7,000 variations of pattern and color, some identifying clans, some royal or military, others designed recently to honor a person or entity. Etiquette sticklers argue that only clan members are entitled to wear their tartans; some scholars, though, argue that historically, tartans were not tied so particularly to clans, who wore whatever pattern they chose as long ago as the 18th century.