buffalo plaid red black camp fire
Credit: Jenelle Hayes

If camping had a uniform, it would undoubtedly be sewn from buffalo plaid flannel. 

From Buffs to blankets to backpacks to scarfs, if you want to evoke “cabin style” (or cottage style, depending which side of the country you live on) you need only seek out that ubiquitous black-and-red checkered print.

Buffalo PlaidBuffalo Plaid

Despite buffalo plaid exploding into popularity, the modern trend is very much a case of what’s-old-is-new-again. (If it ever really went out of style, that is.)

Plaid can be traced back to 17th-century Scotland where tartan patterns are culturally emblematic. In Scotland, buffalo plaid is identified as MacGregor Red and Black and informally called “Rob Roy,” (for Rob Roy MacGregor), despite insufficient proof that the folk hero ever wore his namesake textile.

By the 1800s, MacGregor Red and Black had arrived in the American West in the form of wool blankets. Popular lore identifies Big Jock McCluskey, a Scottish frontier settler who traded with the Sioux and Cheyenne peoples in Montana and the Dakotas, as an exporter of the pattern. According to The Tartan Authority, Native American warriors dubbed it “plaid” because the Gaelic word was pronounced “pladjer.” How it became buffalo plaid is somewhat disputed. Some texts allege McCluskey was the owner of a herd of buffalo; another story credits the Woolrich company.

In 1830, English immigrant John Rich established a textile factory in Pennsylvania to produce the wool goods he sold in nearby lumber camps. (At the time, Pennsylvania was “The Lumber Capital of the World.”) Twenty years later, Woolrich Woolen Mill began commercially manufacturing the iconic buffalo plaid flannel shirt and according to the company’s website, “legend has it” that the pattern’s designer owned a herd of buffalo.

Whichever narrative is accurate, Woolrich flannel shirts were popularly worn in the American lumberjack community, strengthening the garment’s affiliation with forestry and industrial camp life.

paul bunyanPaul Bunyan | Flickr/Dennis Jarvis (CC by-SA 2.0)

In 1914, The Red River Lumber Company’s marketing materials depicted iconic lumberjack and folk hero Paul Bunyan wearing buffalo plaid—perhaps indelibly confirming buffalo plaid’s affiliation with outdoorsmen and a wilderness lifestyle.

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Fun fact: To recognize 35 years in publication, each 2016 cover of explore was emblazoned with a Buffalo plaid badge.

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