10th December 08, 02:01 PM
Too many styles of Kilts to choose from.
Too many styles of Kilts to choose from.
By Steve Ashton
Owner and Kiltmaker
Kilts for Pipe Bands, kilts for carpenters, kilts in Tartans, kilts in solid colors and even Camouflage kilts. Kilts that cost thousands of dollars, and kilts sold for the cost of a pair of jeans. Why are there so many styles of Kilts and which one is right for me?
Well first, let’s look at the kilt that everyone is familiar with and use that as a starting point. Then we’ll look at some of the other styles of kilt.
Traditional Style Kilts
If you’ve ever been to a Scottish Highland Games and seen a Pipe Band, or if you have been to a wedding where the men were in kilts you have seen what is called the Traditional Style Kilt.
Made famous by the British Regiments of the Great Wars the Traditional Kilt has a long and illustrious history. As the national garment of Scotland it is worn today by anyone wishing to pay homage to their ancestry, anyone with a desire for a level of comfort not available with trousers, and by anyone who knows the secret that every woman thinks every man looks good in a kilt. Traditional Kilts are worn much higher than most men today are used to. It will be more strapped on, than worn, with two or three hefty straps and buckles. The top straps will be at your natural waist and the top of the waistband will cover the bottom of your ribs. The front will have two overlapping aprons and there will be dozens of wonderful, swishing pleats in the back.
Made from approximately 8 yards of Worsted Wool that weighs 13, 16, or even 22 oz. per linear yard, a Traditional Kilt is an imposing garment. And a bit intimidating the first time you put one on. Most people seeing a kilt for the first time however won’t notice the aprons or pleats. The first thing they notice is the Tartan fabric the kilt is made from. Tartan, the multi-colored plaid fabric is so tied to the kilt that for some purists they are almost the same thing.
The Tartan may represent a Family or “Scottish Clan”. They may also represent a geographical district such as the Irish Counties, U.S. States, Canadian Provinces etc. There are also Tartans made for Companies, Sports Teams, and Pipe Bands. At the time of this writing there are approx. 4000 registered Tartans.
The design, study of, and mythology surrounding Tartans is a far larger topic than I can cover here so let’s get back to what makes a Traditional Style Kilt so distinctive.
A “proper’ Traditional Kilt is completely hand-sewn. (with a needle and thread). The people who make them are skilled artisans and their hand stitches will outlast those made by machine. There are reinforcements and liners built into the kilt which help it hold its shape and if properly cared for a traditional kilt can last for generations. This is why a full, hand-sewn Traditional Kilt is nicknamed a “Tank”.
The pleats are pressed into the fabric. Not ironed, pressed, with high heat, steam, and pressure. If properly pressed the creases forming the pleats will withstand washing and retain their crisp edge for a very long time.
In the back of the kilt there will be an area below the waistband that is stitched down and tapered. This area is called The Fell, and is approximately 1/3 of the total length of the kilt. The bottom of the Fell should be at the widest part of the hips and butt with the pleats falling vertically down to the hem.
The hem of a Traditional kilt is the Selvedge, or raw, edge of the fabric although some dancers and children’s kilts will have a turned up hem to allow for growth.
There are two aprons on the kilt. They are wide enough to make up ½ of the waist measurement. The aprons are fastened with the top apron overlapping the under apron and opening on the right side. The edges of the apron will be tapered so that the bottom is wider than the top. This is to allow the edges of the aprons to gently roll around the legs and not curl outward.
When wearing a Traditional Kilt you will also have to wear a Sporran. That is the bag or pouch which you see hanging in the front. There are almost as many styles of Sporran as there are manufacturers. Some will be plain leather with no ornamentation and some will have tassels, fur, horsehair, or be made from full-face hides. The reason for the sporran is to have some place to put your wallet and car keys. Traditional Kilts will not have pockets. The sporran is fastened with a chain or strap around the waist and allowed to hang just under the belt buckle. There may be two loops sewn to the back of the kilt and many men believe these are belt loops. They aren’t, they are sporran loops and are needed by thin hipped men so that the sporran will not slip down over the hips.
If you combine the skilled kiltmakers labour, and the cost of the imported Tartan fabric, many of which can cost $100.00 per yard, a full Traditional Kilt can be a very expensive piece of clothing. It is not uncommon for a Traditional Style Kilt to cost a thousand dollars and it is this cost that pushes the Traditional Style Kilt out of the wardrobe of the average man today.
Now lets look at some of the other styles of kilt that are becoming popular today.
Historical Style Kilts
At Renaissance Faires and meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) you will probably see dozens of kilts that people hope will represent the style of kilt worn during the medieval ages.
You will hear terms like The Belted Plaid, The Great Kilt, and Gaelic sounding phrases like feilidh-mohr and breacan-feile. These terms refer to a style of kilt that is essentially a large rectangular piece of fabric that is hand pleated each time it is put on. It is believed that this “Great Kilt” was an all-purpose garment that served to keep the wearer warm and dry in the highlands of Scotland and also served as his hunting camouflage during the day and his sleeping bag at night. But there is so much debate on the age of the kilt, the method of wearing it, and the details of how they were made that heated arguments commonly break out among those who wear them.
The truth is no one knows for sure when the kilt was developed.
Every human culture has some form of male clothing that does not have legs sewn in so it can be assumed that the Great Kilt was one of these early garments. There is evidence that the Scots used a length of fabric right off the looms, without cutting or tailoring, and wrapped it around themselves in a way that was useful to their needs and practical to their lifestyle. This evidence seems to show that the rectangle of cloth was gathered in loose folds or pleats then belted around the waist. In cold weather the folds may have been allowed to hang low, around the ankles, and in warm weather hiked up to the thighs. The ends of the cloth may have been rolled and tucked into the waist forming large pockets in the rear to hold game or supplies and the remainder may have been pinned at the shoulder to form a rudimentary cape. In the rain the pin at the shoulder could be unfastened and the cloth brought over the head to keep the wearer dry. At night, the length of cloth would be unfastened, unbelted, and shook out so that the wearer could roll up in it as a blanket.
This type of garment makes sense for the lifestyle of the wild tribes of the highlands and given the lack of the ability to sew and tailor clothing as we know it today.
Now take another step in history and the wild tribes are settling into villages and what were roaming hunters began to need a garment that was less cumbersome than 4 to 8 square yards of fabric wrapped around their bodies. At some time around the late 16th century or early 17th century some smart highlander may have cut his great kilt in half and only worn the bottom, pleated section. He may have also been able to add some stitching to the pleats so that they would stay in place and not need to be arranged each time. Another development may also have been a drawstring or straps to replace the waistbelt.
By the middle of the 1700’s this Phillabeg or little wrap was in common use and we have numerous illustrations showing highlanders wearing it. There is a kilt in the Scottish Tartans Museum, Franklin NC dated 1792. This seems to be the oldest known true kilt. It has the pleats sewn down in the Fell and has just a few wide box pleats. The illustrations of this period show Box Pleats, Knife Pleats, pleats that go clockwise, counter clockwise and in both directions at once. They also show that when pleating the kilt the pattern of the Tartan was not paid much attention to.
It must be remembered that the kilt in the 1700’s was a practical and comfortable garment for the highlanders. In the lowlands and in England the average person was wearing clothing with legs in them which better suited their lifestyle. Historically it has always been the practicality and comfort that have been the reasons for wearing the kilt.
Whether worn in the fields or for dress in the cities it has always been up to the wearer how he wore his kilt. I am not surprised or worried that some illustrations of kilts show highly inventive and different ways to wear the kilt. The kilt is a very personal garment and men have always liked being peacocks in their methods of dress. Anything new, more colourful, and different have been worn by men throughout the ages and the kilt is no exception.
There is no “correct” or “right” kilt. It doesn’t matter if you choose to wear a Historical Style Kilt, a Traditional Style, or one of the more recent developments, the important thing is that you wear it. In recent years some scholars, historians, and kiltmakers have honestly attempted to resurrect authentic Historical Style Kilts. Using museum artefacts, historical documents and solid research Matt Newsome who is Curator of The Scottish Tartans Museum has started to produce a 4 yard box pleated kilt that is probably the most documented Historical Style Kilt.
Casual Style Kilts
There is nothing that compares to the look, and swish of the pleats, of a Traditional Kilt. But oh, the cost and care needed. In the 1990’s a few kilt companies began to ask if the Traditional Kilt was truly practical in today’s world. They began to experiment with some of the man-made fibres available and with alternates to the skilled hand labour involved. The products of this experimentation are known as Casual Style Kilts.
Casual Style Kiltmakers want to produce a kilt as close to a traditional kilt as is possible. Their goal is to produce a kilt that at first glance can stand next to a Traditional and not be noticed as out of place.
The first experiments where made with alternate fabrics to Wool. Most notably among the fibres they started using was a blend of Polyester and Rayon known as Poly/Viscous or P/V for short. P/V can be woven in Tartan patterns and the dyes used produce bright and vibrant colors that don’t fade. It can also be pressed at much lower temperatures than Wool and the creases produced are virtually permanent. P/V is also very wrinkle resistant and machine washable.
A perfect fabric you may say. Well, yes. With a drape and swish that rivals Wool, P/V is a very good, less costly alternative to Wool. However, the Holy Grail of P/V kilts currently is a heavy weight fabric. Most P/V today is woven in a relatively light 10 or 10.5 oz. per linear yard weight. It should be possible to be woven in a heavier weight but no one seems to be doing it. It is the hope of the kilt world that soon a weaver will begin to produce P/V in weights of 13 and 16 oz.
The next thing kiltmakers began to experiment with is machine sewing their kilts. It is the hand stitching that makes up the bulk of the labour cost of a Traditional kilt. Using a sewing machine has allowed some kiltmakers to produce a kilt in under 10 or 11 man-hours. This is half the time it takes a competent Traditional kiltmaker.
There are some differences in the look of a machine sewn kilt. The stitching is always visible when using a machine. To some purists this is unacceptable. The phrase goes though, “you get what you pay for” and at just a couple of hundred dollars a machine sewn kilt is the only kilt some men can afford.
The machine sewing which goes through all the layers and folds of the fabric and the thinner quality of P/V allow the Casual kiltmaker to skip the costly reinforcements needed in a Traditional kilt. Many are made with a minimal liner or no liner at all.
The Casual Style Kilt has proven to be a good, cost effective, alternative to a Traditional without sacrificing to look. To most people seeing a Casual Style Kilt for the first time they may not be able to tell the difference from a Traditional.
The downside of the Casual Style Kilt is that because it does not require the skilled craftsmanship, almost anyone with a sewing machine can make one. Some shops in Scotland and the internet are full of low cost kilts. Many are made of fabrics like acrylic (think leisure suits). Many of these kilts are manufactured in Pakistan and the orient where labour costs are minimal. There are a few manufacturers who, while they contract the manufacture of their product overseas, still care about quality, but there are enough shoddily made kilts out there today that the prospective kilt buyer needs to be aware of what his $99.95 is buying.
Since the introduction of the first Casuals there have been many manufacturers who have taken up this style of kilt. Three of these companies, USA Kilts of Philadelphia, PA., Stillwater Kilts of Minneapolis, MN., (who subcontract their kilts in Pakistan), and Bear Kilts of Vancouver, BC, have taken great pride in the kilts they make. They produce quality, custom made, Casual Style Kilts, and have been responsible for putting more men in kilts than anyone else.
Contemporary Style Kilts
In 1991 a new style of kilt was developed by Howie Nicklesby of 21st Century Kilts in Edinburgh. His idea was to create a more fashionable alternative to a Traditional Kilt. Once the rules were broken with kilts made from Camouflage, Leather, and Denim a flood of new companies began developing kilts that a few years before would have been looked on with raised eyebrows.
This new style of kilt, known as a Contemporary Style Kilt attempts to retain the spirit of the Traditional Kilt in that it is built in much the traditional way, and retains the hallmarks of the Traditional styling. But where they diverge is in the addition of pockets and the use of solid coloured, machine washable fabrics.
Why no one before thought to put pockets in kilts is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is tradition. I personally dislike a sporran. It seems that my keys always get tangled up with my cell phone and I never seem to be able to find my money without digging around and finally end up dumping everything out.
A Contemporary Style Kilt will almost always have Traditional style pleats, be they knife, or box. The aprons are near full width and tapered just as on a Traditional. But some makers have begun to experiment with alternate fastening systems. There are now fasteners of Velcro, buttons, plastic quick-disconnect buckles and many others.
To a Contemporary Kiltmaker there is no hard and fast rule that kilts must be made from Wool or Tartan? Kilts have always had a military history, so you can now find kilts made from Camouflage. Fabrics of Polyester/Cotton blends like those found in men’s slacks offer machine washability and they can be treated with Teflon to resist soil and stains. They also resist wrinkles well.
For day-to-day wear in the office and for hikes in the woods the Contemporary Style Kilt is changing the entire world of kilts and dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
Today, a man’s garment without pockets is unheard of. Most of us would be lost without pockets. Why should kilts be any different? Today the Contemporary Kilt can have a wide array of pockets. There are side pockets like those found in trousers. There are Cargo Pockets, hidden pockets to keep your passport safe and special pockets for tools, and pocket watches.
If properly made and custom fit to the wearer a Contemporary Style Kilt can have pleat swish which rivals a Traditional. Most Contemporary Kilts are also made of just as much fabric. However most fabrics in a Contemporary cost a fraction of what Tartan Wool costs. So you would think they would cost far less than a Traditional. It’s true that a Contemporary Kilt will normally cost about half of what you would spend on a Traditional, but what you save in fabric costs is lost in the labour costs to design and sew a Contemporary that looks good and has pleats that lay straight without curling. Even though a Contemporary is machine sewn it takes just as long to make one as it does to hand sew a Traditional. This is due partly to the added time to make the pockets and partly due to the added time to top stitch the edges of each pleat crease.
Cotton and Poly/Cotton fabrics will not hold a crease as well or as long as Wool because repeated machine washing stresses the fabric and the creases are soon lost. Very soon you would need to baste the pleats back into position and press the creases back in, so most Contemporary kiltmakers top stitch the pleats. These fabrics also do not have the clean selvedge edge that Tartan Wool does so a turned-over hem is almost always needed.
Cottons and Poly/Cottons are stiffer and less malleable fabrics than Wool. Where in a Traditional you can create curved lines and form the fabric into shape with steam, in Contemporary kilts the shape must be built into the kilt with the stitching. I make Contemporary Style Kilts for a living so I’m rather biased but I’m also an Engineer so I believe that if care is taken in the design and pride taken in the construction, a Contemporary Kilt can have the classic lines of a “real” kilt, can have almost as nice a swish, and can provide the wearer with a garment that can be worn every day, at the office or in the bush.
It’s in this day-to-day wear that the Contemporary Kilts really make sense. What if you have no Scottish Heritage? What if you can’t afford the Traditional Kilt with all the accessories that go with it? What if you want to wear your kilt in conditions which would destroy your expensive Wool kilt? The answers to these questions are what the Contemporary kiltmakers are trying to provide.
Robert Pell of R-Kilts, located in Ontario, Canada, Amerikilt, from PA, and myself at Freedom Kilts are some of the Contemporary kiltmakers who have begun to provide our customers with this next, natural development of the kilt.
Pub Style Kilts
Recently the Kilt world has been flooded with less expensive kilts made in Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Mainland China. If you take a walk down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh you may be amazed to hear middle-eastern music coming out of shops with kilts and accessories hanging outside.
The tourists buy these Kilts as fast as the vendors can hang them up.
You can you purchase one of these Kilts for as little as £30.00. But is it a Kilt? The tag inside says "Authentic Woven Tartan" followed by "Designed in Scotland". And the washing instructions list the fabric as 100% Acrylic Wool.
There are some posts on this forum that warn about the proliferation of what they call "Tartan Tat" sold in these shops. There are even flyers being handed out in Edinburgh warning about these kilts. But are they kilts?
Well, if all you are ever going to do with your kilt is show off the souvenir of your trip to Scotland. If you plan to attend you local football game or go to the pub and spill beer on your kilt then perhaps these are the perfect kilt for you. If what you are looking for is an inexpensive kilt for lounging around the house or mowing the lawn then one of these kilts is perfect.
There are all types of claims made about these kilts. Some sellers claim that these kilts are made from "heavy weight P/V" The truth is that the fabric is usually acrylic fibers and the weight is usually around 4-5oz.
The final answer to whether these are kilts will rest with those who buy them. They are perfect for what they were designed for.
Will they ever be capable of wearing to a formal dinner with your Prince Charlie? Well, no. But that is not why they are bought.
The fact is that this thing we call the kilt is still evolving. With the casual styles of dress common in the world today these kilts are finding an accepting audience. The more people that buy them, the more the manufacturers will make them. The more people that look at the kilt as a replacement for jeans the more that will look for a kilt in the price range of jeans.
MUG Style Kilts
There have always been garments that defy categorization. A MUG or Male Un-bifurcated Garment is one of those garments. Is it a kilt or is it a skirt?
Well, strictly speaking, a kilt is a skirt. Most people agree that the answer to the question will be up to the individual designer and individual kilt wearer
The one company that has put more men into MUG’s than anyone else is Utilikilts, of Seattle. Steven Villegas, the designer, states very clearly that his garment has no Celtic or Scottish inspiration. Steven had to coin the word MUG just to describe his garment.
Yes, a Utilikilt has pleats, although they use an old style of pleating known a “Reverse Kingussie”. They also now use aprons but at first they had a fly front with a zipper.
There are quite a few very new garments being designed known as “Goth” or “Fetish” MUGs. Some have zippers, chains, and enough studs and metal to frighten an airport security guard. Are these kilts? If the designer calls it a kilt to gain greater acceptance of his product and the wearer calls it a kilt to prevent confusion with cross-dressing, then I guess it is a kilt.
Kilts have been with us for quite a while now. Designers have always, and always will, try to come up with something different that will catch the eye of prospective customers. Those of us who wear kilts do so for a variety of reasons. One reason that stands out above the others is that The Kilt is perhaps the most masculine of all garments, and women instantly recognize the confidence you begin to exude the moment you put one on. Whenever you step outside in the Kilt you will be noticed. People will stop you and ask questions. They will want to take your picture.
Today, the kilt is more accepted on the street than ever before. It is becoming daily wear for more men, and has finally come out of the realm of costume.
Regardless of whether you spend a thousand dollars for a Tank or you make it yourself and join the “Clan of MacTablecloth”, there is a power in The Kilt. Enjoy and revel in the power of the kilt.
Last edited by Steve Ashton; 18th August 10 at 02:40 PM.
11th February 09, 05:27 PM
Excellent article!! Great read, too!
26th February 09, 06:37 AM
Thanks for taking the time to write this great article. It is really helpful and historically informative.
In the Highlands of Colorado.
26th February 09, 07:14 AM
Do you mind if we copy this and spread it around?
26th February 09, 07:32 AM
I would bet it would be far better to spread the link to this page around instead.
Originally Posted by budd4766
-See it there, a white plume
Over the battle - A diamond in the ash
Of the ultimate combustion-My panache
26th February 09, 09:43 AM
This article started out as one chapter of "The Art of Contemporary Kiltmaking"
I have a re-written version from the book that I may ask a Mod to exchange here.
But yes, feel free to spread this around in whatever form is easiest for you.
Skype (webcam enabled) thewizardofbc
I wear the kilt because: Swish + Swagger = Swoon.
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