The kilt is a knee-length garment with pleats at the rear, originating in the traditional dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century. Since the 19th century it has become associated with the wider culture of Scotland in general, or with Celtic (and more specifically Gaelic) heritage even more broadly. It is most often made of woollen cloth in a tartanpattern.
Although the kilt is most often worn on formal occasions and at Highland games and sports events, it has also been adapted as an item of fashionable informal male clothing in recent years, returning to its roots as an everyday garment.
The kilt first appeared as the great kilt in the 16th century, a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over the head. Thesmall kilt or walking kilt (similar to the “modern” kilt) did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.
The name “kilt” is applied to a range of garments:
- The traditional garment, either in its historical form, or in the modern adaptation now usual in Scotland (see History of the kilt), usually in a tartan pattern
- The kilts worn by Irish pipe bands are based on the traditional Scottish garment but in a single (solid) colour
- Variants of the Scottish kilt adopted in other Celtic nations, such as the Welsh cilt and the Cornish cilt
- Other skirt-like garments designed for men, but more or less different in structure from the Scottish kilt, including contemporary kilts
- Certain types of pleated wrapover skirt worn as school uniform by girls.
The Scottish kilt displays uniqueness of design, construction, and convention which differentiate it from other garments fitting the general description. It is a tailored garment that is wrapped around the wearer’s body at the natural waist (between the lowest rib and the hip) starting from one side (usually the wearer’s left), around the front and back and across the front again to the opposite side. The fastenings consist of straps and buckles on both ends, the strap on the inside end usually passing through a slit in the waistband to be buckled on the outside; alternatively it may remain inside the waistband and be buckled inside.
A kilt covers the body from the waist down to the centre of the knees. The overlapping layers in front are called “aprons” and are flat; the single layer of fabric around the sides and back is pleated. A kilt pin is fastened to the front apron on the free corner (but is not passed through the layer below, as its function is to add weight). Underwear may or may not be worn, as the wearer prefers, although tradition has it that a “true Scotsman” should wear nothing under his kilt. The Scottish Tartans Authority, however, has described the practice as childish and unhygienic.
Organizations that sanction and grade the competitions in Highland dancing and bagpiping all have rules governing acceptable attire for the competitors. These rules specify that kilts are to be worn (except that in the national dances, the female competitors will be wearing the Aboyne dress).
Design and construction
The typical kilt as seen at modern Highland games events is made of twill woven worsted wool. The twill weave used for kilts is a “2–2 type”, meaning that each weft thread passes over and under two warp threads at a time. The result is a distinctive diagonal-weave pattern in the fabric which is called the twill line. This kind of twill, when woven according to a given sett or written colour pattern, (see below), is called tartan. In contrast kilts worn by Irish pipers are made from solid-colour cloth, with saffron or green being the most widely used colours.
Kilting fabric weights are given in ounces per yard and run from the very-heavy, regimental worsted of approximately 18–22 ounces down to a light worsted of about 10–11 ounces. The most common weights for kilts are 13 ounces and 16 ounces. The heavier weights are more appropriate for cooler weather, while the lighter weights would tend to be selected for warmer weather or for active use, such as Highland dancing. Some patterns are available in only a few weights.
A modern kilt for a typical adult uses about 6–8 yards of single-width (about 26–30 inches) or about 3–4 yards of double-width (about 54–60 inches) tartan fabric. Double-width fabric is woven so that the pattern exactly matches on the selvage. Kilts are usually made without a hem because a hem would make the garment too bulky and cause it to hang incorrectly. The exact amount of fabric needed depends upon several factors including the size of the sett, the number of pleats put into the garment, and the size of the person. For a full kilt, 8 yards of fabric would be used regardless of size and the number of pleats and depth of pleat would be adjusted according to their size. For a very large waist, it may be necessary to use 9 yards of cloth.
One of the most-distinctive features of the authentic Scots kilt is the tartan pattern, the sett, it exhibits. The association of particular patterns with individual clans and families can be traced back perhaps one or two centuries. It was only in the 19th-century Victorian era that the system of named tartans known today began to be systematically recorded and formalized, mostly by weaving companies for mercantile purposes. Up until this point, Highland tartans held regional associations rather than being identified with any particular clan.
Today there are also tartans for districts, counties, societies and corporations. There are also setts for states and provinces; schools and universities; sporting activities; individuals; and commemorative and simple generic patterns that anybody can wear. (See History of the kilt for the process by which these associations came about.)
Setts are always arranged horizontally and vertically, never diagonally (except when adapted for ladies’ skirts). They are specified by their thread counts, the sequence of colours and their units of width. As an example, the Wallace tartan has a thread count given as “K4 R32 K32 Y4” (K is black, R is red, and Y is yellow). This means that 4 units of black thread will be succeeded by 32 units of red, etc., in both the warp and the weft. Typically, the units are the actual number of threads, but as long as the proportions are maintained, the resulting pattern will be the same. This thread count also includes a pivot point indicated by the slash between the colour and thread number. The weaver is supposed to reverse the weaving sequence at the pivot point to create a mirror image of the pattern. This is called a symmetrical tartan. Some tartans, like Buchanan, are asymmetrical, which means they do not have a pivot point. The weaver weaves the sequence all the way through and then starts at the beginning again for the next sett.
Setts are further characterized by their size, the number of inches (or centimetres) in one full repeat. The size of a given sett depends not only on the number of threads in the repeat, but also on the weight of the fabric. This is because the heavier the fabric the thicker the threads will be, and thus the same number of threads of a heavier-weight fabric will occupy more space. The colours given in the thread count are specified as in heraldry, although tartan patterns are not heraldic. The exact shade which is used is a matter of artistic freedom and will vary from one fabric mill to another as well as in dye lot to another within the same mill.
Tartans are commercially woven in four standard colour variations that describe the overall tone. “Ancient” or “Old” colours may be characterized by a slightly faded look intended to resemble the vegetable dyes that were once used, although in some cases “Old” simply identifies a tartan that was in use before the current one. Ancient greens and blues are lighter while reds appear orange. “Modern” colours are bright and show off modern aniline dyeing methods. The colours are bright red, dark hunter green, and usually navy blue. “Weathered” or “Reproduction” colours simulate the look of older cloth weathered by the elements. Greens turn to light brown, blues become gray, and reds are a deeper wine colour. The last colour variation is “Muted” which tends toward earth tones. The greens are olive, blues are slate blue, and red is an even deeper wine colour. This means that of the approximately 3,500 registered tartans available in the Scottish Tartans Authority database as of 2004 there are four possible colour variations for each, resulting in around 14,000 recognised tartan choices.
Setts may be registered with the International Tartan Index (ITI) of the charitable organisation Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), which maintains a collection of fabric samples characterized by name and thread count, for free, and/or registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) of the statutory body the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), if the tartan meets NAS’s criteria, for UK₤70 as of 2010. Although many tartans are added every year, most of the registered patterns available today were created in the 19th century onward by commercial weavers who worked with a large variety of colours. The rise of Highland romanticism and the growing Anglicisation of Scottish culture by the Victorians at the time led to registering tartans with clan names. Before that, most of these patterns were more connected to geographical regions than to any clan. There is therefore nothing symbolic about the colours, and nothing about the patterns is a reflection of the status of the wearer.