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Highland dancer wearing a kilt

A kilt, as the term is used in this article, is a skirtlike traditional Scottish garment in its modern form as illustrated in the photo at right. In this form, the kilt can be seen at modern-day Highland games gatherings in Scotland and elsewhere throughout the world. Historical forms of the Scottish kilt have differed in several particulars (some quite substantial) from the modern-day version.

The modern Scottish kilt is worn by both male and female Highland dancers, bagpipers, Highland athletes, and other performers and entertainers. Apart from these activities, it is worn almost exclusively by men at Highland Games and elsewhere. Women other than dancers and performers sometimes wear a kiltlike garment called a kilt-skirt which differs in several particulars from the kilt.

The organizations which sanction and grade the competitions in Scottish 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). The word kilt as used in this article refers to those garments as typically seen in such competitions.[1] [2]

General description of a kilt

The kilt, as referenced above, is a tailored garment which is wrapped around the wearer's body at the waist, hanging down encircling and covering the upper part of the legs above the knees. The fabric is cut so that it is open along a line from the waist to the lower edge (the selvedge on a kilt) with the opening being secured by means of straps and buckles.

The two ends of the kilt fabric overlap considerably to form what are called aprons. These aprons are positioned in the front while the remaining length of the fabric is pleated.

In addition, the kilt exhibits certain peculiarites of design, construction, and convention which differentiate it from other garments fitting the above description.

Design and construction


The kilt as seen at modern Highland games events is twill woven with worsted wool which, in conjunction with its plaid pattern (see below), is commonly referred to as tartan. A twill weave is a type of weaving pattern in which each weft thread is passed over and then under two warp threads at a time. The result is a distinctive diagonal weave pattern in the fabric which is referred to as the twill line.

Kilting fabric comes in different weights, from very heavy (regimental) worsted of approximately 21 oz. weight down to a light weight of about 10-11 oz. The most common weights for kilts are 10 oz., 13 oz., and 16 oz. The heavier weights are used by bands, some performers, and athletes, while the lighter weights would tend to be selected for warmer weather or for active use, such as Highland dancing. Not all tartans are readily available in all weights, but can be specially woven upon request.

For a kilt for a typical adult, about 8 yards of single width (about 26 to 30 inches wide) fabric is commonly used[3]. The exact yardage required depends upon several factors, including the size of the sett, the number of pleats put into the garment, and, of course, the size of the person!

Setts (plaid patterns)

One of the most distinctive features of the authentic Scottish kilt is the plaid patterns (called setts) which such kilts exhibit. Many of these patterns have come to be associated with Scottish clans. There are also patterns associated with districts, countries and other geographical regions, military branches, and other entities. The process whereby these associations came about is the subject of the history of the kilt.

For purposes of description, it is first of all necessary to point out that these patterns, in addition to other characteristics, are always arranged horizontally and vertically, never set at a slant or diagonal. In addition, the setts are registered with the Scottish Tartans Society which maintains a collection of fabric samples characterized by name and thread count.

The actual sett of a tartan is the minimum number of threads that completely determines the pattern. The pattern itself is then repeated in both the warp and the weft which, with very rare exceptions (mainly in the case of some very few old and rare tartan patterns) are identical. This identity of warp and weft means that the pattern will appear the same if the fabric is rotated through an angle of 90 degrees.

Setts are further characterized by their size which is the number of inches (or centimeters) 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 so because the heavier is the fabric weight, the thicker the threads will be and thus the same number of threads of a heavier weight fabric will occupy more space when woven.

The setts are specified by their thread count, which is the sequence of colors and the proportions thereof. As an example, the Wallace tartan has a thread count given as K2 R16 K16 Y2 K16 R16 (K is black, R is red, and Y is yellow). This means that 2 units of black thread will be succeeded by 16 units of red, et cetera, in both the warp and the weft. (Typically, the "units" will be the actual number of threads, but so long as the proportions are maintained, the actual pattern will be the same.)

The colors used will vary from one mill to another as well as from one dye lot to another within the same mill. In addition, the exact shade used is a matter of artistic interpretation of the mill's master weaver. The tartans are available in color variations knows as Ancient, Modern and Weathered. The Ancient colors are subdued in an attempt to mimic the lighter natural dyes. Modern colors are bright and vivid, while the Weathered tartans are designed to simulate the appearance of the fabric as it would look after exposure to the "weathering" effects of the elements.


The kilt is tailored to the individual proportions of the wearer. This means that in order to make a properly fitting kilt, certain of the kilt wearer's individual body measurements must be known to the kiltmaker. All kiltmakers require four measurements. The measurements which are needed are: 1) around the waist; 2) the hips at the widest portion of the seat; 3) the length from the waistline to the top of the kneecap; and 4) the fell, or the distance from the waistline to the widest part of the hips[4]. Although not a measurement per se, most kilt makers will add up to 2 inches of fabric above the waistline or top of the belt line. This extension of the kilt above the waistline is called the rise and almost all of the kilts which one sees in dance or piping competitions are so constructed.

Generally, kiltmakers will supply instructions and a diagram explaining how (and where) to take the required measurements and these should be followed precisely as otherwise the kilt will not fit properly. Again, most will recommend that another person do the actual measurement, especially for the length (the distance from the waistline to the top of the kneecap). Prospective kilt purchasers should follow the measurement instructions as detailed by the kiltmaker of their choice.[5]

Pleating and stitching

Pleating to the stripe

There are two basic methods of pleating a kilt.[6] In one - called pleating to the stripe - a vertical stripe is selected and the fabric will be folded so that this stripe runs down the center of each pleat. The result is a style where horizontal bands appear along the back and sides of the kilt (see the photo at top of this section). A kilt pleated in this fashion will look different from the front than it does from the back. It is often called military pleating because this is the style of pleating adopted by most military regiments. It is also widely used by pipe bands.

Pleating to the sett

The other style of pleating is called pleating to the sett. Here, the fabric is folded in such a way that the pattern of the sett is repeated all around the kilt. This is done by taking up one full sett in each pleat (in the case of small sized setts, two full setts will sometimes be taken up in each pleat). As a result, the kilt will exhibit a pattern which looks much the same from the front as from the back.

Pleats of any type, on any garment, are characterized by depth and width. When you look at a kilt from the back, the portion of the pleat which you see protruding from underneath the overlying pleat is the size or width of the pleat. The pleat width is selected based on a combination of the size of the kilt, the size of the sett, the number of pleats, and the amount of fabric to be used in constructing the kilt. It will generally vary from about 1/2" to about 3/4" at the bottom of the fell.

The depth of the pleat cannot be seen. Rather, it is the part of the pleat which is folded under the overlying pleat. The pleat depth will depend solely on the size of the tartan sett (one full repeat of the sett being taken up in each pleat).

The number of pleats used in making the kilt depends upon how much material is to be used in constructing the garment together with the size of the sett. Traditionally, a minimum of 23 pleats will be used in making a kilt. Finally, the location of the pleats in a kilt is not arbitrary, but is dictated by the tartan fabric, the locations being chosen in order to produce a pleasing pattern across the back of the garment (see the above discussion about pleating to the sett or pleating to the stripe).

The fell of a kilt

That portion of the kilt from the waistline to the widest portion of the seat is called the fell (see photo). The pleats across the fell are adjusted (tapered) slightly depending on the exact measurements of the wearer. In the usual situation, this adjustment would be in the form of a slight inward tapering due to the fact that, for most people, the waist will be somewhat smaller in circumference than the hips. In addition, the pleats in this portion of the kilt will be stitched down. This could be either hand stitched or machine stitched, though with reference to the kilts which one sees in dance and pipiing competitions, hand stitching is the norm.

Highland dancer. Note the action of the kilt which is dependent on the way the kilt is constructed.

In Highland dancing, it is easy to see the effect of the stitching on the action of the kilt. In the photo at left, note how the kilt hugs the dancer's body from the waist down to the hipline and, from there, in response to the dancer's movements, it breaks sharply out. In Highland dancing, the way the kilt moves in response to the dance steps is an important part of the dance. If the pleats were not stitched down in this portion of the kilt, the action, or movement, would be quite different.[7]

On a properly fitted kilt, the stitched portion of the pleats will hug the contours of the wearer's body while the unstitched portion of the pleats will hang straight down from the seat. Since the pattern of the tartan is oriented horizontally and vertically, and not at a slant angle, this means that the pattern across the back (where the garment is pleated) will appear just like the unpleated portion of the aprons in front. If the pleats were not stitched down across the fell, the garment would tend to flare out like a gathered skirt and this would break up the tartan pattern.

Kilt care

As the kilt is made of wool, it should not simply be thrown in the washing machine along with other laundry. Instead, there are two main methods by which a kilt can be laundered: dry cleaning and hand laundering in cold or lukewarm (definitely not hot) water.

Expert recommendations differ on the best of these two methods. Tewksbury and Stuehmeyer, in The Art of Kiltmaking, advise strongly against having the garment dry cleaned, stating that "dry cleaning leaves a subtle residue on the kilt" and that, as a result, it "will soil more easily after it has been dry-cleaned".

On the other hand, Matthew Newsome, the Curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum in North Carolina (USA), states that "it is best to dry clean" the kilt, feeling that the kilt does not come into direct contact with the skin for very long and thus will not readily soil.

In between wearings, the kilt should first be aired out and then hung in a closet. One way to hang the kilt is to use a skirt hanger with large clasps. The kilt is first folded twice in half along the waist line. Then the skirt hanger is used to clasp the top of the kilt before it is hung in the closet. If moths are a problem, it can be hung with a cedar cache or strips of cedar wood.

Occasionally, the pleats may need to be re-pressed and this takes care. The authors of The Art of Kiltmaking advise that the pleats should be basted down before pressing so as to keep the pleats as straight as possible from the bottom of the fell to the bottom of the kilt, thus preserving the look of the sett when the kilt is worn.

Many kiltmakers recommend basting down the pleats before sending the kilt out to the cleaners. Otherwise, when the pleats are pressed in, they may be spread slightly before the pressing. This causes them to flare out somewhat like a skirt and as a result, the pleats will not hang straight from the bottom of the fell and the pattern of the sett will be disrupted.

Altering a kilt

A properly made kilt, when buckled on the tightest holes of the straps, should not be so loose that the wearer can easily twist the kilt around the body. Nor should it be so tight when buckled on the loosest holes of the straps that it causes "scalloping" [8] of the fabric where it is buckled.

Additionally, the length of the kilt, when it is buckled at the waist, should be such that the kilt extends to the top of the kneecap. If it does not, it is either too long or too short.

Kilt too small or too large

Commonly, the kilt will be made with five holes in the straps and it is made to fit on the center hole. This allows at least some room for weight loss or weight gain.

If the holes on the straps are insufficient to accommodate weight changes, then, provided the weight changes are not too large, the positions of the buckles and straps could be adjusted. A kilt maker would know how to accomplish this, but although this is the preferred method, it is only possible if no more than an inch or so needs to be let out or taken in. If the kilt needs to be let out or taken in more than two inches, more drastic alterations will be required in that the aprons themselves may need to be made wider or narrower. Some kilts that are made for younger individuals include a hidden "growth pleat" in anticipation of the fact that, at some point, the kilt will have to be let out. Again, your kilt maker can best advise you on this matter.

Kilt too long or too short

As mentioned above in the section on measurements, the kilt is normally tailored so that the bottom edge of the kilt falls at the top of the kneecap. At Highland Games gatherings, it is not uncommon to see kilts being worn whose bottom edge falls somewhat below this level. Such a kilt may need to be shortened. However, before embarking on what could be an expensive alteration, it is well to determine whether this alteration is actually needed or not. One common problem is that some people wear the kilt on the hips, and not at the waist as intended. So first make sure that the kilt is being worn properly and only then can one determine whether or not an alteration is required.

Normally, a kilt is not hemmed, since the tartan comes with a useable selvedge. One common exception to this rule is a kilt for a young and growing child (many Highland dancers fall into this category). Here the kilt is often hemmed so that as the child grows, the hem can be let out to accommodate the growth by lengthening the garment.

If the kilt is made on the selvedge, as is normally the case for an adult, it can be shortened by hemming it, although this works best with the lighter weight fabrics as otherwise the hem will be bulky and the pleats will not have a sharp crease. The only other way to shorten the kilt is to take material off the top of the kilt. In order to do this, the stitching at the bottom of the fell needs to be extended and, in addition, the aprons may need to be modified as well. While it may seem easier and less costly to cut the excess length from the bottom of the kilt, doing so would destroy the integrity of the selvedge.

In sum, a kilt that is too short cannot be lengthened while the alteration of a kilt that is too long is a complicated and costly process. From this, one can see the importance of getting the correct measurements for a kilt.

Kilt Makers Association of Scotland

Within the past few years, an organization was formed to establish quality standards for kilts. The Kilt Makers Association of Scotland provides a label which their members have the right to affix to those garments which meet KMAS quality standards. In order to become a member and have this right, a kiltmaker must submit a finished kilt as an example of their work to an independent assessor who then determines whether or not the garment meets the KMAS standards.

The standards of the KMAS provide specifications concerning the quality of materials (not just the basic fabric, but also the threads, buckles, canvas liner, etc), the tailoring, overall construction techniques, pleating and quality of sewing (all KMAS label garments are hand sewn).


  1. Rules of the British Columbia Pipers Association - in which "acceptable highland dress" for solo pipers and pipe bands is specified
  2. Costuming regulations of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing
  3. This statement has reference to the kilts as commonly seen in the pipe band and dancing competitions, as mentioned earlier in the article. Although kilts can and are made with less material - sometimes as little as 5 yards - most reputable authorities contend that 8 yards for a normally sized adult (and more for larger adults) is required for a truly quality garment.
  4. Sometimes a kiltmaker may use a formula (generally 1/3 the overall length of the kilt) for the length of the fell, but most will want a direct measurement of this length. In addition, some kiltmakers may want a fifth measurement around the top of the hip bone. This is most often requested when making kilts for female dancers.
  5. Instructions for measuring for a kilt from Geoffrey Kilts - One example of measuring instructions from a noted kiltmaker
  6. In what follows, we have in mind the most common form of the kilt as seen at modern-day Highland games gatherings. Such kilts are almost always knife pleated in contrast to box pleating. Historically, however, the box pleated kilt was the more common form.
  7. In Highland dancing, as also when a person walks wearing a kilt, the kilt will sway from side to side, an action which depends critically on having a large number of very deep pleats which in turns depends on having a large amount of material in the kilt.
  8. The term scalloping refers to an unsightly deformation of the garment around the buckles and straps which results from stretching the fabric in order to secure the buckle.