The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Kilt making

 

Tailoring yards of woollen cloth, by hand, into a perfectly fitting garment. Traditional kiltmaking is done entirely by hand.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance Scotland
Area currently practised Scotland
Origin in the UK A long multi use version of the kilt has been worn by men in the Scottish Highlands for centuries but the knee length kilt we know today became popular in the early 18th Century.
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
20-30
Current no. of trainees 15-25
Current total no. serious amateur makers
11-20
Current total no. of leisure makers
30-40
Minimum no. of craftspeople required 60+

 

History

The kilt started off as a blanket-like garment that was folded at the back, held at the waist with a belt with the remainder of the cloth falling back or wrapped around the shoulders/ over the head for protection. When cold it could be used as a blanket. Tartan was originally regional and recognisable by the colours derived from local plants that were used to dye it with.

The wearing of Highland dress was banned by the British Government (as well as the wearing of arms and the speaking of Gaelic) with the Dress act of 1746 in an attempt to bring the Scottish clans under control after the Jacobite Risings. However it was during this 37 years of forbidden kilt wearing that the military (who could still wear it) developed the garment into a more fitting and tailored garment. The Victorians continued to develop tartan and kilts to eventually becoming the eight yard hand tailored garment we know today.

Kilts are associated with Scottish Highland dancing, with Scottish pipe bands, with the military and is the traditional dress for weddings and other celebrations. The kilt is an icon of Scottish culture and heritage and it is still an important symbol of family and being a Scot.

In Scotland many men get a kilt for their 21st birthday, their graduation, their wedding, worn at Hogmanay, and at important occasions throughout their lives. They are made for life.

Many Americans and Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Scandinavians and sometimes Africans with Scottish ancestry will make a point of purchasing a kilt at some point in their lives. They are not associated with any particular social class or religion; it’s an inclusive garment with tartans to reflect a person’s family name, beliefs, hometown, etc.

 

Techniques

  • Measuring of the customer, calculating the bespoke pleat width, calculating the front and back apron size and shape
  • Pleating the cloth/tartan either to the stripe or sett
  • Creating a pleat design, either as knife, box, military roll or Kinguissie form
  • Transferring the measurements to the cloth
  • Hand sewing pleats using invisible stitching
  • Hand sewing a fringe on the front apron
  • Cutting the pleats to reduce bulk
  • Reinforcing the pleats with canvas
  • Calculating the placement of the buckles and straps
  • Sewing belt/sporran loops and making chapes (fabric pieces that hold the buckle onto the cloth)
  • Lining part of the inside with cotton.

A variety of hand sewing stitches are used for the different processes.

 

Local forms

Differences in kilts are mostly in the tartan which is clan related; each tartan differs and therefore needs to be pleated differently. There are ways that groups like their kilt to be set up, for example pipers/ military will have it pleated to the stripe.

All cloth is wool but comes in different weights, lightweight for women’s kilted skirts only, medium weight suitable for everyone and heavy weight mostly used by pipers and the military but not exclusively. Kilts from alternative materials have gained some popularity such as wool tweed or even alternative fibres such as cotton.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Sporran making
  • Knitting kilt hose (socks)
  • Highlandwear – e.g. kilt pins sighan dubhs, ghillie brogues, argyll and bonnie Prince Charlie jackets, the smock shirt etc
  • Tartan weaving

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Lack of recognition for makers – most kilts are bought from kilt retailers, not directly from kilt makers. The skilled craftspeople work behind the scenes, are paid on a piece rate, and are often underpaid for the work that they do. The kiltmaker as a craftsperson is largely invisible. It is, therefore, difficult for makers to make a sustainable income and the pool of ‘timeserved’ skilled kiltmakers is declining.

  • Market issues – the demand for kilts is high and there are still plenty of people around the world who are prepared to invest in a hand tailored kilt as a one-off ‘lifetime’ purchase. However, they are unlikely to buy directly from a maker.

  • Market issues – a move towards cheaper machine made kilts and imported kilts has led to a rapid decline in skilled kiltmakers.

  • Threat to skills – whilst there are still a number of traditional kiltmakers still practising in Scotland, the standard of skills in making a made to measure bespoke hand stitched kilt could be under threat.

  • Training issues – many traditional kiltmakers are self-employed and can’t afford to train apprentices. In addition to this, traditionally kiltmaking was a secretive craft with makers often unwilling to pass on or share skills. This attitude is changing but it has left a legacy in that young people are unaware of the craft or don’t know how to access training.

  • Training issues – there are few places to train and very few apprenticeships available. However, there are some initiatives that have been set up by makers to teach the hand skills such as the Kiltmakery, the Keith Kilt and Textile Centre, and the Edinburgh Kilt Academy. Most people who want to learn kiltmaking want to do it as a hobby or for friends and family, it can be a challenge to find people who want to make a career out of kiltmaking.

  • Ageing workforce – Many kiltmakers are close to retirement age, although there are some new young career kiltmakers coming through.

  • COVID-19 – this has had a detrimental effect on the kiltmaking industry. The number of kilts being sold has dropped dramatically as events like weddings and parties have been cancelled or postponed. The mills were also forced to stop weaving for months meaning there is some shortages of some tartans, as well as shortages of items from the wider highlandwear industry.

  • Ageing kiltmakers retiring due to COVID-19 – Some experienced makers have given up during the pandemic and will not return to kiltmaking, which has hastened the decline in numbers of craftspeople.

 

Support organisations

There are some organisations that are delivering training in kilt making:

 

Craftspeople currently known

Businesses employing two or more makers:

 

Other information

Kiltmaking is a craft that is uniquely linked to a nation’s identity and therefore evokes a lot of emotion. It produces a product that is meant to last a lifetime and is to be passed down generations and a lot of the work kiltmakers do are repairs and resizing of kilts. Repairing, observing and learning from the work of kiltmakers of the past is one of the most exciting parts of the work. Many leave marks, dates and names under the lining to be discovered.

 

References