How to Sew a Modern Kilt Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Sew a Modern Kilt

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There is no shortage of reasons why a person might want to acquire a kilt. Whether you're learning Scottish dancing, participating in Highland games, going to a costume party as William Wallace, have received an unexpected invitation to your long lost clan's family reunion, or simply want to try an alternative yet manly form of dress, a kilt will be necessary. Since a professionally made kilt is cheap at £100 ($170 US, approx.), whereas a homemade one can cost less than half that amount, you may discover a sudden interest in sewing that you never before knew existed.

Myth has it that kilts are fiendishly difficult to sew. This is a non-truth, probably propagated by those who sell kilts for astronomical prices. The truth is merely that kilts take a bit of time and thought on the part of the would-be kilt maker, but are otherwise not very complicated pieces to produce. The kilt is essentially just a pleated wrap around skirt - there is no simpler article of clothing that can be made, except perhaps a non-pleated wrap around skirt. They do take time to sew, however. For a first kilt you should probably allow yourself some 24 hours to complete it. If you're the sort of person who tends to try every wrong way before getting it right - don't be ashamed, Edison had the same problem - make that 30 hours.

There are eight basic steps to kiltmaking, which will be explained in the order of operation. Don't read too far ahead before you complete the first three steps, as it will only serve to confuse and aggravate you. Everything will make sense when you get up to it. Until then, take it one step at a time.

Things You Will Need

  • Time
  • Needle
  • Thread
  • Straight pins
  • Lots of safety pins
  • Tape Measure
  • Basting tape (optional)
  • Sewing machine (optional but highly recommended)
  • 2-3 leather straps and buckles
  • A large kilt pin
  • Lots of tartan material
  • Lining material (optional)
  • Chalk, a dressmaker's pencil, or a bar of soap worn thin

Definitions

A kilt consists of three sections, listed in the order they appear on the length of material:

  • The front apron is the unpleated front of the kilt that shows on the outside when you wear the kilt.

  • The pleated length is the stretch of heavily pleated material that comprises the back of the kilt.

  • The under apron is the unpleated other-end of the kilt that lies underneath the front apron when you wear the kilt.

  • Basting means loosely sewing down a seam solely for the sake of keeping it in place until you get up to tightly stitching it down permanently.

  • A running stitch is the most basic stitch: in and out, one stitch right after another. Running stitches are usually large and somewhat looser than a standard sewing stitch, and are generally used for basting.

Purchasing a Tartan

Unless you are going to a clan reunion, it probably doesn't matter what sort of tartan your kilt is made of. This is fortunate, because most material stores carry only a few basic tartans - if any - so specific patterns will have to be ordered from Scotland for a steep price. If you don't care what your tartan looks like, so long as it's tartan, try to buy something with some synthetic material blended in. Synthetics hold their pleats better and lay more comfortably than cotton blends, and will be more comfortable than wool material.

Knowing How Much to Buy

Once you've found a store that sells tartan material, you need to know how much you'll need. The answer, in short, is quite a lot. The saying 'the whole nine yards' may have originated in the fact that a high-quality kilt for a man could require as much as nine yards of material. This huge amount of material is gobbled up by the pleats at an alarming rate, so it's always better to err on the side of too much rather than too little.

Measurements

Here are a few measurements you'll need in order to know the length of material that you will require. These are: waist, hips, and length.

Waist

To obtain your waist measurement, simply wrap a tape measure around the narrowest part of your waist and note the measurement. Most kilts are worn around the waist, some even higher. If you intend to wear a belt with your kilt, it is essential that your kilt reach your waist. If style is less of a concern, you can wear your kilt lower, but you will have to adjust the sewing directions accordingly. Because of the amount of material that will thicken the top of the kilt, it is advised to add a few centimetres to the waist measurement to ensure that it won't become too tight.

Hips

To measure your hips, wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your hips and seat and record the measurement. The hip measurement is the most essential of all the measurements, so be sure to do it carefully. Again, because the kilt pleats will make the material thicker, add a few centimetres to the measurement.

Length

Kilts are traditionally worn to mid-kneecap length, but the more modern look is to have the kilt reach to just above the knee. An easy way to get a good kilt length is to kneel on the floor and measure from your waist to the floor. The resulting number will be your kilt length.

Translating the Numbers

How to translate your measurements into metres of material depends on how professional you want to make your kilt. Really expensive kilts have many tiny pleats that swallow massive amounts of material into a small area of kilt. These kilts take equally massive amounts of time and patience to craft. Since you are reading this online instead of buying a book on kilt-making, we are going to assume that you are not planning on launching a career in kilting and want to make a kilt that has the maximum amount of style with the minimum amount of labour. Therefore, the following calculations are based on a pleat size of 2.5 cm or 1 inch. Don't let the calculations intimidate you. If you sit down with a pencil and paper you will quickly find that you can adjust them to suit your personal needs.

Now for the measurements:

  • 5/12 your hip measurement for the front apron.

  • 5/12 your hip measurement for the under apron.

Those were the easy ones. Here comes the most complicated part of kilt making. Read carefully:

'Sett' is a fancy way of saying 'the length of the tartan pattern, measured from the centre of one pattern-square to the centre of the next one'. Look at a tartan. The broad and narrow stripes of colour form squares that make up the pattern. Take your handy tape measure and find out the distance between the centres of two such adjacent squares. That is your sett length.

Now consider for a moment the nature of a pleat. Fold a piece of paper or a scrap of material if it helps. There are two parts of a pleat. The part that is exposed on the outside- that is seen - and the part that is folded under - is hidden. The hidden part is called the under pleat width. The exposed part is called the pleat spacing. On a professional kilt, the under pleat width can be many times the width of pleat spacing. For the sake of simplicity we're going to make the under pleat width exactly double the pleat spacing. This means that to pleat your kilt you just have to take every sett and divide it into three parts. The first two get folded in half, facing each other. The third section will automatically then be facing outward. Viola - a pleat.

Take the length of the sett of the tartan you've chosen, and make the necessary calculation:

  • Take 7/12 your hip measurement and divide it by the measurement of your pleat spacing. This number is the total number of pleats that you will sew into the back of your kilt.

  • Take the amount of pleats and multiply it by the under pleat width.

  • Add this number to 7/12 your hip measurement, ie the pleat spacing. This number is the total amount of material you will need for the pleated length.

  • Add this number to the measurements needed for the aprons.

  • There are two double pleats between the under apron and the pleated length. Calculate in double under pleat width and pleat spacing for these.

  • Add a generous 15cm (6in)for centring and hemming your aprons.

  • Add some 20cm (8in) for wastage and mistakes.

  • Add 15cm (6in) for the fringe.

If your sett size is over 16cm (6in), you may want to make the pleat spacing size smaller. In this case you will have more material going into the under pleat length and less into the pleat spacing. The calculations can be adjusted for this by making the under pleat length twice the pleat spacing plus a centimetre - or more, depending on the sett size. You then repeat the same calculations with the new numbers.

  • Total the numbers and this will be the length of material you need in order to sew your kilt.

Warning: it is far, far better to err on the side of having too much material than having too little. If there are worse things in life than getting 99% through your pleating and then discovering that you are 6cm short, you don't want to know about them.

The math is almost finished.

Many tartans are sold double-width, meaning the material is actually twice as wide as it appears, and comes folded in half. If the material you're buying comes double-width then you can divide the amount you need in half, cut the material down the centre, and sew it together end-to-end. The seam will be hidden in a pleat and unnoticeable.

Onto the easy part now:

Sewing the Kilt

Cutting

Because of the huge amount of pleats that you will sew into to your material, hemming must come first. If the material width is longer than your required length, you will need to trim material off one side. Many materials come with the edges fringed or otherwise prevented from unravelling and do not need a hem. If you like the edge then you can leave that as your bottom hem. It is unnecessary to hem the top of the material, as the waistband will cover that. If you intend to hem the bottom, however, make sure to allow an extra centimetre or so for the hem when you cut it down to size.

If your material is double length, it's best to cut it while it's folded, so that the tartan pattern will line up when you sew the pieces together. The thick piece you cut off the fold will later become your waistband. Sew the two long pieces together end-to-end and hem it as one piece.

Now you are ready to begin the actual needle and thread part.

The Shape of the Kilt

The under apron edge for a male's kilt begins at the left hip-bone and wraps around clockwise. The pleated length begins at the right hip-bone and continues over the buttocks to the left hipbone, where the over-apron begins. The final fringed edge of the outer apron lays over your right hipbone. Keep this in mind when you lay the material out on the floor. All 'left' and 'right' in this guide refers to your left and right as you wear the kilt. If your kilt is for a female, reverse everything.

The Under Apron

Measure out 5/12 your hip measurement for the front under-apron. If you don't like fractions, then you can simply measure the distance from hip-bone to hip-bone across the widest part of your front. Add a few centimetres for hemming it, and for mistakes.

At the right edge of the apron, make a pleat that opens to the left, and then another facing it, opening to the right. These are your double pleats, and they can take up to two setts of material each. Their purpose is to allow you to align your material so you go into the first pleat with the right part of the pattern on the pleat spacing. They also help the kilt lay neatly, so don't skip them if you don't have to.

Pleating

As stated before, the easiest way to pleat is to simply divide the sett into three sections and fold two facing each other. This will result in a recurring pattern, which depends on where in the sett you begin your folding.

Regimental kilts usually pleat so that the vertical lines are centred in the pleat spacing. You can also pleat it so that the broad horizontal stripe is showing.

Dress kilts, on the other hand, are usually pleated from an element (such as a stripe) to just before its next repetition, so as to duplicate the tartan pattern. Experiment with the various possibilities before beginning your kilt. Because you'll be folding using marks on the material, you will not need to measure the pleat divisions. If, for some reason, you're using solid-coloured material or are measuring from between stripes, you will probably want to cut a piece of thin cardboard the same length as the set and fold it into three to help you measure out your pleats.

Keep a hot iron nearby to press your pleats down as you go. The results are neater and easier to sew. If your material has synthetic fibres, be careful that the iron doesn't get too hot. The last thing you need is to burn a hole through the penultimate pleat.

In any case, use safety pins 1 to fasten the pleat down at the hip. (The waist will need to be narrowed, so there's no point in pinning it.) The pins should be stuck in vertically to prevent the pleats from being able to wiggle out sideways.

As you reach the end of your pleated length, try on the kilt every now and then to check if you need more or fewer pleats. The pleated length should stretch from one hipbone around to the other, though you can get away with a shorter length if you run out of material.

The Front Apron

The front apron should have the tartan pattern centred across it. If, when you finish your pleating, the pattern is off centre, use an inverted pleat - rather like the double pleat which you began your pleating - to centre the tartan.

Suppressing, Sewing, and Cutting the Pleats

If you haven't pressed the pleats until now, do so.

Calculate the difference between your waist measurement and your hip measurement. That is the amount of material that needs to be 'suppressed' between the neat row of safety pins and the top of the material. There are two ways to dispose of this material. The first is by pinching in darts, the second, by drawing the pleats together.

A dart is a piece of material pinched in so that it takes away some of the circumference of the material. You can sew darts in at the edges of both aprons over the hip bone and into the outside of your double pleats. The darts should be triangular: a centimetre at the waist, and tapering down to nothing at the hips. Darts are difficult for beginners to work with, however, so don't give yourself a headache over them. The only really necessary darts at the edges of the aprons.

The second way to suppress the waistline is by simply overlapping the pleats more. If you drag one pleat edge over the pleat spacing of the next, there will be more material in the underpleat length and less in the actual circumference of the waist. To suppress 8cm in fifteen pleats, each pleat needs to overlap the next by 0.53 extra centimetres. It's a pain to do this with a ruler; do it by eye and make adjustments until it fits properly. Pin the adjusted pleats down at the waist with safety pins stuck in vertically.

If you're working with a sewing machine, you'll want to baste the pleats now before sewing them down. At this point, basting tape may seem to become as necessary to existence as water and oxygen, but actually a loose running stitch along the folded edge of the pleat will work just as well, albeit much more slowly.

Important note: when sewing, make sure that every stitch catches only the three layers of material of a single pleat. Do not catch the material from another under-pleat in your stitch - you will later cut these out. In other words, when you're done, the entire back of your kilt should have flaps of material waving freely.

When you sew the final seam, be it by machine or by hand (not recommended), start at the waist and sew down toward the hipline. 2 Again, be careful that you don't catch any underpleats in your stitching. Again, be careful... They have a tendency to catch, and are annoying and time consuming to rip out.

When your pleats are all sewn down, you're ready to cut out the extra pleat material.

Yes, cut your beautiful kilt. This makes the kilt lighter and helps it lay better. Don't be scared. Turn the material over and observe all those loose flaps of material. From the waist until around a centimetre above the hipline, cut off the excess material. Because the top of the pleats are sewn down nobody will be able to tell that the material is missing. Do this to all the regular (ie: not inverted or double) pleats except the first and last pleats.

Now try on the kilt. Isn't it beautiful? And you did it yourself. But you're not finished yet. It will become even more beautiful before you're finished.

The Waistband

If you haven't yet, hem the right edge of the front apron. Fold more material into the hem at the top of the apron, so that it narrows toward the waist.

Find the material you cut off the top when you trimmed your kilt to the right length. You need a piece that is some 6cm longer than your waist measurement and approximately 5cm wide. This will be your waistband.

Try to line the waistband up so that it matches up with the pattern on the front apron. Fold the front edge under again, and iron it down. Iron a crease into the band where it will fold over the top of the kilt as well; this will make it easier to sew down. When you have it lined up, pin it down tightly and sew it down as close to the bottom of the band as possible. You're nearly done.

Lining

If you are adding a lining to your kilt, now is the time to sew it in. Attach it under the waistband and to each edge of the aprons.

The Fringe

The edge of the outer apron sports a fringe several centimetres long. Take a piece of material that will match up with the tartan pattern along the edge of the apron. It should be around five to six centimetres long. Pull out the vertical threads until you have a long enough fringe, and then sew it down along the edge of the apron.

The Straps

To hold the kilt closed you need to affix two leather straps to the inside of the outer apron, and two corresponding buckles to the second pleat. Place one buckle and strap just below the waistband. The other put just above the hipline. You can use special buckles from a sewing supplies store, or take a pair off an old belt or knapsack. Sew the straps in by hand, taking care that the stitches don't show through the front of the apron. If you added a lining, sew the straps under the lining.

A third strap is usually added to the other side to keep the under apron in place. The strap attaches to the edge of the under apron, exits through a slit in the penultimate pleat, and fastens through a buckle sewn just under the waistband. If this is your first kilt, slitting a hole in a pleat may give you the jitters. In that case, a snap, hook, or piece of Velcro on the waistband serves just as well.

Finally, the middle of the outer apron is pinned to the under apron using a 7.5cm (3in) gold or silver kilt pin, available at many sewing supplies stores. The pin-head can be ornate, even engraved with a family crest, for added style.

And that's it! Your kilt is made! Try it on. For a full look you should wear a 2-inch thick belt and tall white hose. You also may want to compliment it with a Tam O' Shanter or Glengarry bonnet, a sporran, a sash, or if you're female, a bodice. See How to wear a kilt for information on how to properly show off your latest creation.

1For those with the Edison trait: safety pins keep the pleats from sliding out from under the pins.2This ensures that you don't end up with an erratic waistline.

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