Making a Traditional Tartan Kilt

Today is National Tartan Day, a celebration of Scottish heritage which is held on April 6 to commemorate the Declaration of Arbroath, a declaration of Scottish independence submitted to Pope John XXII in 1320.

Tartans have been woven in Scotland for centuries, but it wasn’t until the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 that the invented tradition of the Clan tartan was born.
Murray of Atholl Tartan

Murray of Atholl tartan, ancient colorway. Polyviscose on top and 16oz worsted wool below.

I myself can barely claim any Scottish Ancestry;  I have a distant connection to Clan Munro, but it would be a stretch to call myself Scottish.  Nevertheless, I always wanted a kilt – and had never acquired one because they are expensive. Depending on the obscurity of the tartan, the fabric alone can cost several hundred dollars.  The time it takes to hand-sew 7 or 8 yards of it into pleats can cost several hundred more. You can get a cheap, mass-produced off the rack acrylic pleated garment that looks somewhat kilt-like, but nothing looks as sharp as a made to measure, hand-sewn 8-yard kilt made from 16 ounce worsted wool tartan.
I don’t remember what sent me down this rabbit hole in 2012, but while searching online I came across a highly regarded book called The Art of Kiltmaking by Barbara Tewksbury and Elsie Stuehmeyer, and a plan began to form.  I purchased four yards (since it’s double-width, you can divide it down the middle and join the ends to form one 8 yard length) of heavy tartan fabric from Marton Mills – it wasn’t cheap, but it was far more affordable than ordering from a typical Scottish specialty shop.  Since they don’t weave the Munro tartan and I wanted something more exotic than the Munro Hunting tartan (which is the same as Black Watch) I went with the Murray of Atholl/Atholl District tartan in ancient colors.  I’m a member of North Quabbin Lodge A.F. & A.M. in Athol, Massachusetts – a town which was named for Blair Atholl in Scotland, and has a long history of enmity with its namesake, so it seemed like a fitting choice.
After gathering supplies and reading through the book several times, I got started.
5 Pleats Sewn

5 Pleats Sewn

Making a kilt is different than most garments; it’s basically following a set of instructions (described very well in the book) as opposed to cutting out and assembling a pattern.  Some construction details and reinforcing aside, a kilt literally is 8 yards of fabric gathered into pleats.  You start with three key measurements:  natural waist, hips, and length from your waist to your knees.  (Traditionally, kilts are worn at the top of the knee, maybe as low as the middle of the knee cap.  Too many men wear them way too low.)

23 Pleats Sewn

23 Pleats Sewn

Each pleat is sewn down from the waist to the “fell”, or widest part of the hips (usually about 1/3 of the overall length.) It’s painstaking work; everything needs to be straight and regular for the pleats to hang correctly and look good.

28 Pleats

28 Pleats Sewn

By the time you finish sewing down the pleats you have a real appreciation for why hand-made kilts are as expensive as they are.  Once the pleats are finished, the next step is to neatly arrange them, baste them together, and steam press them.  Once pressed, the wool will hold the pleats sharply for a surprisingly long time.

Pleats, basted and pressed

Pleats, basted and pressed

Most of the rest of the work is internal; the insides of the pleats are cut away to reduce bulk, then stabilizing stitches reinforce the area to keep the pleats in place.  Hair canvas is sewn in to give the area a bit more stiffness, apron edges are finished and finally buckles and straps finish the kilt, seen here with a matching, bias cut waistcoat in polyviscose tartan, shortened Harris Tweed jacket, hand-knitted and felted Balmoral bonnet, and hand-knitted plaid hose.

Murray of Atholl Kilt and Waistcoat

Murray of Atholl Kilt and Waistcoat

It was my privilege to wear this kilt while making a presentation on behalf of my Masonic Lodge to the 12th Duke of Atholl on his visit to Athol during the town’s 250th anniversary celebrations; the Masons of Athol have a history of amity with the Dukes, and we wanted to continue the tradition.

North Quabbin Lodge A.F. & A.M. Make a presentation to the Duke of Atholl

North Quabbin Lodge A.F. & A.M. makes a presentation to Bruce Murray, the 12th Duke of Atholl

Since then I’ve lost a fair amount of weight – and while that’s a good thing, I do miss the kilt, which no longer fits.  The strap and buckle closure does allow for a range of a couple of inches, but beyond that you need to actually move the straps to fit a smaller waist, but they can only be moved so far before things start to fit and look strange.  I have to make a replacement one of these days.

People occasionally ask if I offer kiltmaking as a service, but so far I haven’t hung out a shingle for that; there are only so many hours in a week!