I hail, arguably, from the contemporary plaid shirt capital of the world – the hallowed grunge ground of Aberdeen, Washington, USA. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’ve worn plaids ceaselessly from the 19th century, through the popularity of the ’60s and ’90s, and up into today’s so-called “hipster” resurgence (hint: we don’t say “lumberjack” – we call these men and women “loggers”).
Plaid has such a rich history it is quite beyond the scope of this piece, but I will mention a few bits and bobs. First, fabrics with these weaves may more correctly be called tartan – but are generally referred to as “plaid” in the United States. The term “plaid” can cover not just what you and I think of when we hear the word (like madras or kilts) but can also refer to gingham, check, and even houndstooth – and its history dates back at least 3,000 years before modern popularity. Depending on your age and locale, you might associate plaid with the Scots, with beards and man-buns, or even Southern California pre-Beach Boys history. Plaid reached a bit of a heyday in the United States in the mid-90s – there were 163 instances of plaid in the alt-90s film Clueless – but it’s back again, in a big way. Plaid fabrics have survived astonishing incarnations, and they are here to stay.
The scope of this piece pertains to plaids in shirtmaking. And if we’re talking about shirtmaking, you can’t talk about plaid without delving into plaid flannels. As you probably know, a flannel is a fabric in either a twill or plain weave that is brushed, napped, and/or constructed with a loose grain that results in a lovely softness (hilariously, I discovered today that the Wikipedia article on “flannel” uses one of my photos!). When I went off to college a friend counted forty three different plaid flannels in my closet. Back in those days we found these in the thrift store. Sometimes you’d score a Woolrich or Pendleton, but usually you’d find a polyester knock-off. In the ’90s you rarely came across a women’s fit – so we wore menswear and suffered overlong sleeves and dropped shoulders. But now that we can sew, we get to take matters into our own hands!
One final note, before I get down to business. The plaids I will be talking about today are woven and yarn-dyed weaves – not to be confused with a printed plaid, or the increasingly popular plaid knit fabrics we are seeing everywhere. I’m going to talk a bit about plaid basics, and at the end of this piece I have two Pinterest boards – one on plaid resources, and the other citing plus-size plaid fashion inspiration.
First: educate yourself on the basics…
Plaid is a playground. It is exciting and fun! The very yarn-dyed weave that can seem intimidating to match, is also a blessing when it comes to shirt symmetry! For instance, once you know where your breast pocket is, then as long as you cut out both front bodices properly it’s very easy to place the pockets symmetrically. The same goes for darts, pleats, and all the other niceties we are used to using for women’s fit garments.
For the basic principles that will help you get started, I haven’t found a better brief summary than the University of Kentucky handout “Working with Plaids”. This is a great document for estimating yardage, straightening the grain, determining if your plaid is “even” or “uneven”, and designing your garment with good visual principles in mind.
… then dive in!
Even reading the relatively brief U of K handout can make your eyes swim. But don’t sweat it.
Step one: find a striking plaid. Step two: sew a shirt. I often suggest finding a boys’ shirt and making it up, as it will be quicker, less costly, but still give you good plaid experience. And I’m sure you will be able to find a sweet little boy to gift!
(This flannel of my son’s went off to a young man in Arizona after my son outgrew it)
Don’t be intimidated. Sure, we plaid freaks can notice even the slightest bit of asymmetry. But remember, you are walking amidst messed-up plaids everywhere. For instance: the shirt below is sold for around $160 from a popular retailer. Handsome model aside, the gorgeous colors of this plaid will generate a favorable effect. But upon closer inspection we see this shirt is a Plaid Nightmare. The pockets and sleeves are entirely mismatched, and the front placket bias strip seems a bit injudicious. Even so, most people will only notice these problems subliminally.
Another example: a jacket. Note the collar is not symmetrical, nor the sleeves matched, and the welt and breast pockets are sad and want to go home. The hem is sloppy and ends 3/4 of the way through a horizontal motif. Again – this is a typical example of retail plaid-wear.
A women’s jacket, below. There is some symmetry here – sleeves and bodice appear to plaid-match, for instance – but there is more discord than agreement:
Another example from a pricey retailer. I don’t know where to start. This shirt personally wants to ruin my life. I can’t find anything matched up or mirrored except for those brave little single welt pockets:
So – now that I’ve got you scrutinizing plaids you’ll see this is what most people are wearing. This means any improvement you make on plaid-matching will generate a favorable response to the beholder’s eye.
And here are some ways to do this:
Experiment with as little plaid disruption as possible…
Below is a great example of pleasing plaid placement! Note the front placket, sleeve- and bodice-matching, patch pocket match, waist seam match, and sleeve tab match! Adorably, the cowl’s simple tab is judiciously offset perfectly from the bodice’s plaid. This is a lovely marriage of the plaid weave and garment silhouette. OK, at this point I’ve talked myself into copying the garment.
… but disruption can be fun, too!
My son is shown below in two different plaid garments. The first car coat (made from a cotton flannel and lined in satin) features four very large, bias-cut patch pockets. The placement of the bias stripes and the symmetry of the pockets break up the bodice in a pleasing, relatively non-jarring way. Note that the fact the center motif is the exact width on the shirt, as it is in the fabric. It generally will be more desirable for you to cut such that the center front has a perfect vertical motif (or, as in the above example, a near-perfect one), than worry what is happening at the side seams. Occasionally you will get a plaid fabric that matches your shirt geometry perfectly and that’s Party Time, for sure!
By contrast – this version of a car coat features as little plaid disruption as possible, save the slanted double-welt pockets (cut to match, as near as possible, the plaid’s vertical lines):
To the extent you add darts, pleats, and gathers – your plaid may not match everywhere.
One thing about many forms of kiltmaking is the plaid weave itself was used to design the pleats. This isn’t likely to be the case in your contemporary patterns. But you still have many garment choices. You may want to plaid-match your shirt body beneath the bust darts and ignore side seam matching above them. You may want to lengthen or shorten hem or sleeve so you can host the hem at the end of a plaid motif.
But keep in mind – not all plaid disruptions are a bad thing! Take this blazer, for example. While the upper collar and front facings could be improved by plaid-matching, note the princess seam effect in the bodice. This is when painstaking cutting and dart- and seam-marking pay off, resulting in very pretty lines. Notice too, how the relatively large buffalo-style motif of this fabric responds more gracefully to princess seams than a smaller tartan pattern may:
Bias details are your friends…
In my flannel shirt sew-along a couple years ago, very few pieces of the shirt were cut on grain. Most were on bias! Bias details are a great way to skip plaid-matching efforts – although you will likely want to make sure bias details are mirror images of one another. Here’s my husband in his favorite shirt, a Bootstrap made-to-measure with the extra length he likes in his arms and torso:
You’ll also see tons of retail products where bias details are used – usually in the front placket and in breast pockets and/or pocket flaps:
(Why does the above shirt hate me? There is almost no symmetry here except for the pockets and flaps, the collar, and the front bodices.)
… but make your bias symmetrical!
This plaid shirt shown below on my son was perfectly symmetrical… except for one detail. The first person to name it gets a prize! The prize being, they are a Huge Plaid Nerd like me!
You will find many retail plaids make use of bias.
Finally: have fun!
I hope this piece has convinced you that plaids are less about “rules” and much more about creativity! I have tried to be as brief and comprehensive in this plaid write-up; but the subject is vast. To that end, my two Pinterest boards below showcase a few great curvy plaid shirts and shirtdresses, as well as some resources if you want to dive down the plaid rabbithole!
So what about you? What are your experiences with plaid shirts? What are your inspirations? And where are your favorite places to find these yummy fabrics? I look forward to reading your feedback in the comments.