The next chapter in our Shirt Style series is on checks and related patterns.
The first, looking at stripes, was surprisingly popular.
I always imagined this type of article would be most useful in the long term – as a piece to look up, to link to, check back on. That’s why I do them – to slowly build up into a 18-chapter work like the Guide to Cloth, which is the most comprehensive work out there on tailoring materials.
But there was a lot of interest in the stripe nomenclature, I think because people do have a genuine issue communicating these things – whether to friends or to shirtmakers.
And there is genuine misuse or confusion. With checks, I’ve always been confused by (usually American) brands that refer to windowpane-check materials as tweed, regardless of the material they’re made of. There are fewer issues with checked shirtings, but hopefully our list and illustrations below sort out some issues.
As mentioned on the shirts piece, I also think these checks are going to become increasingly relevant for guys going forward, given the little ties are worn anymore. These are the new patterns to obsess over.
There are a few ways to divide up check patterns, just as there were with stripes. One way is to look at checks that are composed of thin lines, first, rather than wide stripes. The most basic stripe of thin lines is the graph check, where those lines are evenly spaced, usually close together, and normally on a white background. It is, as a result, redolent of graph paper.
A graph check can be composed of more than one colour of stripe, though it rarely is. The tattersall check, however, is defined by these multiple colours, and is made of thin lines like the graph check. Often used on country shirts, the tattersall usually combines six to ten different colours of stripe, on a white or yellow background. Its name originates from the Tattersall horse market in England, whose blankets in the 18th Century were made in this pattern.
Although not commonly seen on shirt materials, the last type of thin-line check is the windowpane. Similar to the previous two checks, just bigger in scale, it is most often seen in shirts combined with other patterns – as part of a Prince of Wales or tartan, for example.
The next category of checks uses wide stripes. The most common is the gingham, which is small in size – not too dissimilar to the graph check – and usually a single colour on a white ground. Checks are simpler than stripes in at least one respect, in that there aren’t lots of different names for different sizes: all small to medium checks like this are referred to as gingham. The origin of the cloth is debated, being either French or Dutch before it came to England in the 17th Century. But it was in any case a stripe originally. The check became dominant only in the 20th Century.
When a gingham check becomes much larger in scale, it does proliferate into lots of different colours and permutations, none of which are really dominant enough to have a common name. The one exception is the buffalo check. This red-and-black pattern was created by Woolrich in the US in the 19th Century, imitating a Scottish check known as the Rob Roy. The American version is now much better known, and indeed has become particularly fashionable in the past three years.
Another pattern which is effectively a variation on the gingham check is a houndstooth. It often has a similar scale, and is composed of equally spaced lines, but the twill weave of the material (gingham is usually a plain weave) creates a jagged effect that apparently resembles a dog’s tooth.
We now move onto checks that aren’t evenly spaced. The glenurquhart or glen check uses lines of lines to create small and large checks across the material, with its (usually) twill weave also meaning that a houndstooth pattern is created where the lines cross. It can be in any colour, but is most commonly seen in black or brown and white, and is rarely multicoloured. The pattern originates with an estate tweed created by the Countess of Seafield in Scotland.
Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales is essentially a glen check with a windowpane stripe over the top, although the two are sometimes used interchangeably – one good reason for writing down the difference, as a reference. Both checks are rarities in shirtings, and frankly rarely look stylish unless very subtle. The name originates with a variation on the glen check created by Edward VII when he was the Prince of Wales.
When variations on the Prince of Wales or glen check use a single colour, and vary its strength (by weaving in black or white) in order to create the effect of fading in and out, it is often referred to as a shadow check (above).
The biggest area for named checks is tartans. These patterns were used on kilts and other items of Scottish dress for centuries, but only really became symbolic when a ban on them was repealed in 1782. The idea of tartans belonging to certain families was also a Victorian fashion, popularised by English that wanted to state their (real or supposed) Scottish roots. Plus ca change. Nonetheless, there are several tartan checks that are now referred to by particular family or regimental names, including the Black Watch, Royal Stewart (shown above, left and right respectively) and Clan MacLeod. The checks are typically a mix of thin and wide stripes, in three or four colours.
Madras checks have no fewer variations than tartans, but have simpler, organic roots and no real systematisation. The material was originally hand printed in Madras, India (now Chennai) with various patterns, but became best known as a check when it was imported into the US in the 18th Century, and was then popularised by Brooks Brothers in the 1960s. It is usually an irregular check, using a small number of bright colours.
Perhaps not really a check. A fabric of a single colour in the warp and weft that looks like a check because of the structure of the weave. It belongs, perhaps, more in a class of ‘patterns’ in plain cloths that are created by their various weaves. These include fil-a-fil and other geometric patterns.
There is a more detailed article on that in the ‘Weaves and Designs’ chapter of our Guide to Shirt Fabrics. This looks at materials, yarns and finishes – brushed cottons, slubby linens and superfines – separate from the ideas of style in this series.
Shirt pictured at the top of this post, and below, the PS Madras linen, made up bespoke by Simone Abbarchi
Morning Simon and a Happy New Year to you. A great piece, once again that succeeds in filling in the gaps for me, with my less than comprehensive knowledge of such sartorial matter. Two points though, one directly related to this article. Why did you decide not to go into production with that wonderful madras linen fabric, perhaps with the same cut as your OBD’s? And secondly, some while back you mentioned a chambray offering in the pipeline. Any update?
Thanks Richard. Pleased the geekery appeals.
We didn’t make shirts out of that Madras because the material wasn’t exclusive to us – there were a few other companies that had bought it, and you could get finished shirts from them (albeit in slightly different washes).
However, it wasn’t possible to get the cloth except through us, to make a shirt bespoke or MTM. So that’s why we just sold the cloth. I always want our products to be exclusive. The other shirting cloths we sell are exclusive to us – the denim, the oxford, the chambray – and so that’s why we offer both.
Anyway, that’s my logic. Perhaps it’s being too limited, given how many people have asked about shirts in the Madras.
The chambray will be back this month, initially as a restock of the cloth, and then finished shirts soon after. There is quite a waiting list for it though – and they get priority. Do email [email protected] if you want to be on it.
Happy New Year Simon!
Should Black Watch actually be referred to as a a regimental tartan, rather than a family name?
As a boy scout in the North-east of Scotland, a lot of boys wore Gordon HIghlander tartan kilts. Ex-army and ex-cadet kilts being relatively numerous in the ’80s. I’m sure it was the same for different regions.
Good point Graham, yes. I’ll add that
Just curious what are your thoughts on combining Belstaff pieces with tailoring? Would a Belstaff trialmaster work just as well with tailoring as Barbour jackets? (I’m thinking flannel trousers and Belgian loafers)
I don’t think so, myself. They’re more rugged really – specifically the collar and the belt.
They can look great, but personally I wouldn’t wear them with tailoring
Great article and a nice reference, Simon. Top marks as usual.
However, I thought a graph check looked much more like graph paper than the examples you have given at the top of this article. Graph paper has been one of the tools of my trade as a scientist! Here is an example of what I think of when I hear the term:
But perhaps the term has a wider connotation. I will be happy to be corrected.
You’re completely right, my mistake. Those are self-checks, created by the weave. We did have a section on those but I took it out.
I’ve corrected them now, to put in graph checks instead
You are wearing black dress shoes with jeans and a madras shirt? Break out the suedes, preferably a boot
Nope, not black – colour 8 cordovan. And loafers, just as casual as a boot
Just commenting to wish Simon and all his readers a Happy New Year. These articles have been a welcome relief over the past year.
Keep safe all.
Cheers Stephen, that’s lovely to hear
Hi Simon, would you care to tell us what are the jacket and jeans (apologies if it is already mentioned in the article – in that case I missed it).
No problem – you can find details of them on the original article featuring the outfit here.
Best of the new year to you!
Great article explaining the differences between the patterns by name.
On the subject of patterns – anecdotally, I have noticed men and women have different languages regarding patterns.
I have had women comment on patterned shirts as well as ties that have been chosen for me by other women, but similar ones chosen by me don’t rate a second thought (if I were more paranoid I would think women were communicating secretly with each other, using me as a billboard to do so)…in many instances, the differences between two items I own (blue checked shirt, for example), is smaller than the belts in the famous scene in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, yet the one chosen by a woman elicits far more comments than the other…
Might be worth enlisting a colour theorist or psychologist for an article on men v. women on clothing patterns….
Well, I hope we will see some more cool shirting ideas! Compared to plain basic colors or stripes however, check shirts have one major problem – they don’t work well with layering. Other than graphs and tattersails, they are usually too strong and crowded to work well under sweaters. This pretty much means they work either with a casual jacket, or under a sport coat and overcoat on top. A bit like dark coloured polo, really. Although there have been some nice outfits with pale plaid checks under crewnecks… Perhaps I’ll just wait for someone to show me how to do it right.
Good point Karol. It think that’s why checks have to be subtler – somewhere between a nothing graph check, and a too-strong black watch
Thank you for another excellent article. A nitpicky layout point: the sample images should really sit between the relevant heading and the relevant describing paragraph. Otherwise the pictures ‘under’ each heading are actually the ones for the next section, which may lead to confusion…
Thanks Richard. I don’t think there’s an obvious solution there – if the images are between title and text, the two are rather disconnected. No confusion so far either as far as I know
Another fascinating article. Your writing has been both enjoyable and a huge oasis of calm during the last year. My own safe space and indulgence.
I hope you and your family have a safe and happy new year.
There is such a gap in the market for a softer collared tattersall check shirt. Cordings style tattersall with an Anglo or drakes RTW collar. Boggles my mind that no one does it
I’m in the middle of upgrading my business dress shirt wardrobe (really my entire wardrobe but I’m currently focusing on shirts). I have switched from mostly solid white dress shirts, to mostly solid blues, with variations in the color of blue and the weave, etc. I’m not a big checked shirt guy in general, but I am interested in very subtle checks. In suits I often prefer what are sometimes referred to as semi-solids (pick-and-pick, birdseye, etc) as opposed completely solid colors, especially for grey color suitings. As I look at the checks you have listed above, I’m considering a subtle houndstooth check and would like to get your thoughts on that as a versatile shirt that would work for both business and social events. It would be small scale and very subtle, light blue and white. Do you believe it would be appropriate for both business and social events? Also what are your thoughts on mixing patterns like pick-and-pick or birdseye suits with small scale checks like houndstooth? I don’t want something that looks bad, at the same time I don’t want to be someone who spends too much time worrying about the rules if that makes sense…. Thanks again.
I think that if you don’t wear patterns much, I would start with stripes rather than checks. They’re much less risky and more likely to look elegant.
Have a look at the other post in this series, on stripes, and get something like a white and pale blue bengal or butcher’s stripe
I think a small gingham or Avery fine pinky grey Tattersall is about all the checks I would want.
Never seen you wearing a check shirt except for your article on madras linen.
May i ask what do you think of Gingham shirt in a casual setting or should I stick with bolder stripes for example ‘Bengal stripes’ and avoid checks altogether?
It’s a good point. I generally find stripes easier to wear, especially with a tie. Gingham, Tattersall and others can look a little old fashioned to me, and limiting.
I’d stick with stripes to begin with, and look and checks later perhaps
I’ve always found checks to be useful if I’m ever wearing just a shirt (with lighter chinos,but not so much with denim). You just have to avoid any lumberjack associations. As always,subtle colours.
You need to set free your inner Ivy,Simon.
Yeah I can see what you mean Peter. Perhaps it’s a question of personal taste, or just finding the right check. It does surprise me how few madras checks I like, for example. Most are too strong or clashing for me
Personally think that most modern Madras is too perfect. I always imagine it to be a stubby, soft cloth with imperfections in both weave and dye.
The nearest was a block printed cloth we discovered on a family holiday in Morocco and that was only two colours. Sadly,that was over 30 years ago.
That sounds lovely. Shout if you ever see anything like that again!
The only company I know (very limited!)using Moroccan cloth are kwesiya. My wife was gifted a scarf. The cloth is very soft. I know nothing else about them.
OK, thank you
My wife(who knows these things) pointed out this blog. It gives a little of the history of madras before Brooks Brothers.