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  • About Kilts
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General Interest

A kilt is a traditional garment of Scottish, and by extension Celtic, culture that exists in various modern forms and forms inspired by the historical garment, including:

  1. The modern form of the traditional Scottish garment;
  2. The historical form of this same Scottish garment (see History of the kilt);
  3. Various other national forms of the kilt, such as the Irish kilt and the Welsh kilt;
  4. The contemporary kilt, such as the Neo-Kilt or Utilikilt;
  5. Certain types of school uniform skirts for girls (see School uniforms).

Traditionalists emphasize that the plural of "kilt" is "the kilt" rather than "kilts", though the latter term has been used alongside the former and continues to gain acceptance in modern English.[citation needed]

At modern-day Highland games gatherings in Scotland and elsewhere, the modern version of the traditional Scottish kilt is much in evidence. Historical forms of the Scottish kilt have differed in several particulars (some quite substantial) from the modern-day version. With reference to the Scottish kilt, the 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). The word kilt as used in reference to the Scottish form of the kilt in this article refers to those garments as typically seen in such competitions. Differences between the Scottish kilt and other forms will be discussed in the sections related to those other types of kilts.

Depending on the occasion, a kilt is normally worn with accessories such as a belt, jacket, sporran (a type of pouch), special footwear, and — optionally — underwear. These are discussed in the separate article kilt accessories.

The Scottish kilt

The Scottish kilt is a tailored garment that 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. Tradtionally there is no underwear wore under it.

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 (around the sides and in the back) is pleated.

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


The typical kilt as seen at modern Highland games events is made of twill woven worsted wool that, in conjunction with its tartan 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. In contrast, the Irish kilt traditionally was made from solid colour cloth, with saffron or green being the most widely used colours.

Kilting fabric comes in different weights, from very heavy (regimental) worsted of approximately 18–21 oz. (per yard) weight down to a light weight worsted of about 10–11 oz. (per yard). The most common weights for kilts are 13 oz. and 16 oz. 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. Not all patterns (setts) are available in all weights.

A 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 edges. Generally, kilts are made without a hem and instead use the very tight selvage as a hem. A hem would make the garment too bulky and it usually does not hang correctly with a hem. 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, of course, the size of the person.

Setts (tartan patterns)

One of the most distinctive features of the authentic Scottish kilt is the tartan patterns (called setts) that such kilts exhibit. Many of these patterns have come to be associated with Scottish clans or families, but there are also tartans for districts, counties, countries, corporations, States and Provinces, schools and universities, individuals, commemorative, and simple generic patterns that anybody can wear. The process by which the connection between clans and tartans 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 Authority which maintains a collection of fabric samples characterized by name and thread count. In all, there are approximately 5000 registered tartans with many tartans being added every year.

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 K/4 R32 K32 Y/4 (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" will be the actual number of threads, but so long as the proportions are maintained, the actual pattern will be the same.) This thread count also includes a pivot point (characterized by the backslash between the color and thread number). The weaver is suppose to reverse the weaving sequence at the pivot point to create a mirror image of the pattern. This is called a symmetrical tartan. Mostly this saves time and space when writing this sequence down. 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.

The colors referred to in the thread count are specified as in heraldry (though tartan patterns are not heraldic). The exact shade which is used is a matter of artistic freedom and will vary from one mill to another as well as from one dye lot to another within the same mill. Tartans are commercially woven in four standard color options that describe the over all tone of the tartan. This is done to give the wearer more choices. Ancient or Old Colors are characterized by a slightly faded look. This is made to resemble the old vegetable dyes that were once used. Ancient red appears as orange. Greens and blues are lighter in shade. Modern Colors are bright and show off modern alkaline dye processing. The colors are bright fire engine red. Green is dark hunter green. Blue is usually navy blue. Weathered or Reproduction colors were introduced by D.C. Dalgliesh. These colors as the name suggests look weathered like the cloth had been sitting the elements for a while. Greens turn to light brown. Blues become gray. Reds are a deeper wine color. The last color option is Muted which is very earth toned. The greens are olive. Blues are slate blue, and red are an even deeper wine color. This means that of the nearly 5,000 registered tartans available there are four possible color options for each (meaning nearly 20,000 tartans).

Much has been made of the use of color in tartans. Some suggest that the number of colors in a tartan pattern reflect the wealth of the wearer. There has even been talk that the patterns have some deep meaning. In reality most of these patterns were originally created by an individual who had only so many colors to work with and only so much yarn of each color to use. Certainly, in the 1700's, if you could afford a more precious dye, for instance purple, you could be thought to be wealthy. But generally most of the registered patterns used today were created in the 1800's by commercial weavers who had a large variety of colors to choose from. Prior to the 1800's most of these patterns had little or no connection to clans at all. It was the resurgence of Highland romanticism and the growing Anglicization of Scottish culture by the Victorians that led to registering tartans with clan names. It has also proven to be quite profitable for the tartan industry to perpetuate the myth that family tartans have always been associated with clans.

For more information about kilts check out our website - The Scotland Kilt Company.