How to make a kilt?
As we continue to share with you all aspects of Scottish life from places to visit, to important festivals and sporting events, to the ins and outs of Highland wear; we thought you would like to learn some of the “behind the scenes” aspects to kilt-making so you can celebrate this wonderful garment with a new-found understanding of the hard work and traditional methods that many kilt-makers still use to this day!
Once you have selected your tartan cloth, the next step will be taking your measurements. Every kilt maker will take at least two measurements – your waist size, and your drop (overall kilt length). They will probably also take your hip size as if this is larger than your waist it will affect the overall construction, and perhaps also the fell length – this is the vertical distance between your waist and hip measurements.
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Next, the kilt maker will determine the exact length of fabric required, firstly by calculating the expected pleat depth. For a standard knife pleated kilt, each pleat will be a full sett deep and have approximately one inch of fabric showing, so your precise pleat depth will be determined by the sett size of the tartan you have chosen. The sett size is the size of one iteration of the repeating pattern which makes up the tartan. For example; a tartan with a sett size of 6 inches will use 7 inches of fabric per pleat, a tartan with a sett size of 8 inches will require 9 inches of fabric per pleat. Kilt makers will also add extra pleats, or extra depth on certain pleats to accommodate a client who wishes to have a full traditional kilt made with more fabric, such as 8 or 9 yards. But, for our purposes today, it is sufficient to stick with the first situation.
Once pleat depth is determined, the kilt maker will multiply this value by half of the hip measurement, and add the full hip measurement (as the front of the kilt has two overlapping aprons, remember), plus an extra 15% for any adjustments required to centre the pleats, add an apron fringe etc. This will be the required length of fabric. Let’s look at two examples:
Gentleman A has a hip measurement of 34 inches, and has chosen 13oz Lindsay Modern tartan, which has a 6.5 inch sett size. Each pleat needs 7.5 inches of fabric, this times 17 (half of the hip size) gives 127.5 inches. Adding on the original 34 inches, for the front aprons, gives 161.5 inches, and the extra 15% for adjustments and other requirements gives a final length required of about 186 inches, or just over 5 yards – perfect for a standard kilt. The kilt maker could also add extra pleats by making the visible portion of each less than an inch, to make this a full 8 yard kilt.
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Gentleman B however, has a hip measurement of 38 inches and has chosen 16oz Black Watch tartan, with a sett size of 8 inches. Each pleat will require 9 inches of fabric, and 9 multiplied by 19 equals 171 inches. Adding to this the full 38 inch hip measurement gives 209 inches, then an extra 15% on top for adjustments gives a final required length of 251 inches, or just under 7 yards. In this instance, the kilt maker will be required to reduce the number or depth of the pleats to allow the kilt to be made with the usual 5 or so yards of fabric – or encourage his client to go for a full 8 or 9 yard kilt and add in extra pleats and depth.
As most tartans are woven at double-width, around 55-60 inches depending on the mill, for the vast majority of people less than half of that width will be required for the length of the kilt. Therefore, kilt makers will often purchase half of the final required length and cut it lengthways, sewing the two pieces together and hemming the top to give the actual required length. Excess width will now be trimmed off, to make the fabric as wide as the required kilt length, this excess will be kept for making the waistband and sporran loops.
Once this is all done, the real work can begin. The fabric will be laid out flat with the selvedge at the bottom and, working from right to left, the kilt maker will mark the various sections as needed. The first mark will be for a few inches of excess left to hem the under apron, then the under apron itself is marked, and will be half of the initial hip measurement. Then the reverse pleat is created – this pleat is folded from right to left at a slight angle and prevents the rest of the pleats from fanning out too much around the side of the kilt, giving a smooth and tidy silhouette to the finished garment. After the reverse pleat has been marked, the rest of the pleats follow. These are measured straight along the lines of the fabric from selvedge to hip, then angled in towards the centre at varying degrees from hip to waist (if the waist is smaller) and are followed by marks for the over apron; again (if all the measurements have worked out correctly) a bit of length will still be left to allow for the final finished hem and fringe.
Read About Measuring for a Kilt
Now all of the pleats will be folded and pinned, then pressed to ensure they are all lying straight and flat as required. Often the final pleat will be up to double the depth of the others, again to prevent unwanted flaring. At this stage many kilt makers will baste along the bottom and middle of the pleats – basically putting in two rows of a long running stitch which can easily be removed later to make sure nothing slips out of place while the work continues. Once the pleats are all pressed and temporarily secured the kilt maker can move on to actually sewing everything properly into place.
Firstly he will sew along the top of the pleats, just a quarter of an inch from where the waistband will be, then the very edge of each pleat will be carefully stitched down onto the pleat beneath for the length of the fell. This important step will prevent the kilt from flaring out over the wearer’s rump which can give a skirted appearance, and is one of the key features of a true Scottish man’s kilt. Next the pleats will be steeked, basically a horizontal line of stitching is added from the inside, about an inch above the fell line, to further stabilise the pleats. Now too the slit for the under apron strap to pass through is created, usually the edge of the second pleat from the left is used and it will be hemmed sturdily to prevent this from becoming a weak point.
The edge of the under apron will now be hemmed, as will the over apron. For the over apron however, a piece of excess fabric may be stitched into the hem so the raw edges run along the length of the apron. This raw edge is deliberately frayed, then trimmed neatly to leave a fringe. Then a cotton lining about one quarter to one third of the total kilt length will be sewn along the top edge, and down the apron hems; folded and tucked where needed to follow the shape of the kilt.
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A waistband will be created from the extra fabric cut off at the beginning, the final width of this will only be about half an inch and it simply gives a polished and tidy finish – ensuring no fraying will occur and maximising the lifetime of your kilt. From the same excess fabric two sporran loops about three and a half inches long and half an inch wide are made; these are sewn to the pleated section at the back, about a third and two thirds along.
The final step is to add the straps to the edges of the aprons, and the buckles to the pleated section, with the edge of the metal part just half an inch or so shy of touching the edge of the outermost pleat on either side. For a five yard kilt, two buckles are normally used, one each on the under and over aprons, but for 8 yards kilts many kilt makers prefer to use three, adding a second strap a few inches below the first on the over apron with its corresponding buckle to the right of the pleated section.
And at last your traditional Scottish kilt is ready to wear! We very much hope you have enjoyed this thorough explanation of how Scottish kilts are usually made, remember however that every kilt maker will have their own quirks and methods so this process will sometimes vary slightly! As always, we welcome all comments and discussion – perhaps there are some kilt makers reading this – or perhaps it has inspired you to find out more and learn to make a kilt for yourself!