Plaid Shirt: Working with Plaid

When working with plaid, it’s worth taking a bit of time to study your fabric before you set to with the scissors. The various colours and structures of tartan designs mean that there are a few things to take in to consideration when working with this kind of fabric.

Balanced vs Unbalanced Plaids

First you need to establish whether your chosen pattern is balanced or unbalanced, as this will have an effect on how you cut out and construct your shirt pieces.

On a balanced plaid the bars and colours of the pattern are symmetrical. When the fabric is folded horizontally or vertically through the centre of the pattern repeat, both halves will be identical. Fabric can be balanced in only one direction (horizontally or vertically), or in both directions. Balanced plaids are much easier to match at seams than unbalanced plaids.

Unbalanced plaids, however, do not have a ‘centre’ to their pattern (though they will normally have a repeat). This means that were you to fold the fabric into quarters, each quarter would look different from the others. Unbalanced plaids can still look great, BUT they are tricky to work with. Also they do not work so well on the bias – worth bearing in mind if you are thinking of cutting your button band and back yoke this way.

Even vs. uneven

This refers to the shapes made by the intersecting stripes of the plaid.

Even plaids are made up of perfect squares: whether you fold the fabric horizontally, vertically, or diagonally through the centre of the repeat, the bars and colours will always match up perfectly with each other.

Uneven plaids will feature rectangles rather than perfect squares. They can nevertheless be balanced horizontally, vertically, in both directions or neither. If balanced in both directions it might look even, but close up you will see that the intersections are rectangular rather than square. When dealing with an uneven fabric it is important to cut out your pieces with a napped layout, so that the rectangles run in the same direction on every piece and you will be able to match them at seams.

Plaids can be a combination of the above 4 options. Here are some examples (red lines show lines of symmetry).

Balanced both ways: symmetrical both horizontally and vertically.
Even: perfect squares (matches when folded on diagonal)


balanced both ways uneven

Balanced both ways: symmetrical if folded along horizontal line, ditto if folded vertically.
Uneven: rectangular shapes (won’t match if folded diagonally)


Balanced one way: symmetrical if folded along horizontal, but thin dark red and blue stripes prevent it being balanced vertically.
Uneven: rectangular shapes



Unbalanced: has a repeat (outlined in black), but if folded horizontally, vertically or diagonally, the two halves will not match.


Pattern Matching

If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend so much time thinking about this that stripes will haunt your sleep for weeks. Of course you could save the effort go for a more ‘free-flowing’ look if you prefer, I just like my sewing to be as neat as I can make it.

It won’t be possible to match the plaid perfectly at every seam, but there are a few major areas where it’s worth doing your best (explanations below the diagram):


© The Wild Rambler

© The Wild Rambler

Centre front and back (inc collar & back yoke)

  • You can easily align your centre back by finding a dominant horizontal line in the tartan (green in the diagram), and making sure it runs down the centre of the back piece.
  • The centre front will be hidden under your button band, but you can make sure that there are dominant horizontal lines running equidistant from the button band on each side (see diagram).
  • You should also take care to have a dominant horizontal line in the centre of the shirt collar piece to make everything look neat, and if you are cutting your back yoke on the grain this should also have a dominant line in the centre.

Armhole/sleeve seams

  • When your sleeve is hanging straight down perpendicular to the floor (see sleeve on far right of diagram), the horizontal stripes on the sleeve should line up perfectly with the horizontal stripes on the torso.
  • The vertical stripes should run straight down from the shoulder to the cuff (again at right-angles to the floor).

Side seams

  • The horizontal lines should be at the same level on both the front and the back pieces – this will ensure they meet perfectly at the side seams, and provide a continuous line round the whole garment.

Shoulder seam

  • If you are cutting your back yoke along the grain and you have made sure that your centre front and back are aligned properly, then your shoulder seams should align automatically.
  • If, like me, you are cutting your back yoke on the bias then you don’t need to match your shoulder seams. (However if you take care when cutting out your yoke piece you can make the pattern nice and symmetrical – see back yoke on diagram – which will in turn make your shoulder seams neater).


  • When adding pockets I prefer to cut them out so that the pattern is the same (or  symmetrical) on each one. Obviously if you prefer you can add a bit of quirk by making them different.

In the next post we’ll look at laying out the pattern pieces, and with any luck we’ll finally get to wield those scissors and cut our shirt out!

Follow these links to see the rest of the posts in this series:




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