Highland Games

Cathy McWilliams at work on an emergency kilt repair at the 2005 Bellingham Highland Games

Cathy McWilliams is a kiltmaker from Puyallup, Washington and a member of the Kilt Makers Association of Scotland, a trade group set up for the purpose of establishing quality standards for the manufacture and tailoring of Kilts. The wife of noted Celtic entertainer Red McWilliams, Cathy operates a business called Fife and Thistle. She can often be found at Highland Games events in the Pacific Northwest where she sells tartan fabric, kilts and offers emergency kilt repairs. We caught up with her at the 2005 Skagit Valley Highland Games in Mount Vernon, Washington where she agreed to sit for the following interview.

The Interview[]

Highland Games: How did you get into kilt-making?

Cathy: Actually, my ex-husband was invited into a Scottish clan - the Robertson Clan Donnachiadh. At the time I made teddy bears as a hobby and one of the members of the clan decided that he was finally going to buy a kilt, but he couldn't afford to have one made. He knew that I was very good with a needle and thread, so his wife asked me if I would make a kilt for him. I said well, I guess I could if I knew how. Now it happened that one of the older charter members of the Clan Donnachiadh was a retired kiltmaker. So she took me under her wing and taught me how to make kilts. This was towards the end of '93 the beginning of '94. So I made several kilts under her tutelage. I basically apprenticed to her, so to speak. Then her son told a friend down in Portland that I was in training to be a kilt maker. So I started making kilts for other individuals. A lot of my experience originally was actually through repairing and altering kilts where not only did I take what she had taught me, but also, looking at the techniques and styles of other kilt-makers, I basically taught myself a lot of kilt making.

Highland Games: Just by taking kilts apart and looking at how they did it?

Cathy: Yes. There are a lot of books and articles on making kilts but there are also a lot of techniques and such that can't be written down in books but that have to be taught - certain techniques have to be passed down. It's all well and good to try to line up some of the pleats so that the stripes going across look like one continuous line instead of stair-stepping away and looking like an escalator on the back of somebody. There are techniques to perfectly line those up so that as you stitch them by hand it all forms a nice beautiful garment that we see most often.

Highland Games: I understand that you hand stitch all of your kilts. Why would that be superior to machine stitching?

Cathy: With machine stitching you can still get a lot of slippage, which means that the lines don't line up and when you machine stitch, the way you have to do it is you top stitch them, so you don't really get a nice smooth appearing garment. I've done both - top stitching, machine stitching, different types of techniques of machine stitching - and hand stitching is the best. You get the best quality.

Highlnad Games: You also told me once that you use a higher stitch count per inch than usual. Is more better?

Cathy: You get a tighter seam. There are a lot of kilts when you look at them - a lot of guys wear their kilts rather tight around the waist. They gain weight. They're ashamed to admit that they gained weight, so they try to tighten that thing down.

Highland Games: Care to name any names?

Cathy: (laughter) I think I'll pass on that one. But you can see how they pucker as it pulls across and you see the scalloping effect along the pleats. And I don't think that looks good. There are others when you take a look at it you can see the stitches from ten paces. So on mine the stitches are smaller, they're closer together, the way I stitch them you almost don't see the stitches. You don't get that scalloping effect. And so the pleats stay in a lot better. It's a lot stronger, and it looks a lot better even though it takes longer.

Highland Games: How long does it take to make a kilt, starting from the fabric.

Cathy: If I didn't have a full-time job, it would take me about two weeks to make a kilt. The pleat count will average anywhere from 29 to 39 pleats, depending on the size of the person's girth. But there is more to a kilt than just sewing the pleats, there's a lot of detail that goes to the inside of the kilt as well, and that also takes time.

Highland Games: Can you run down some of your pet peeves or list of don'ts either about making kilts or the wearing of a kilt?

Cathy: There are a lot of pet peeves that I've seen about the making of a kilt where I've altered kilts. I'm not going to name any names of mills. One kiltmaker who is now out of business had used double fusable interface and ironed the pleats together and then machine stitched it. And so that is destroyed. There are some kiltmakers who take shortcuts. There is interfacing that goes into the kilt and it should be sewn in. A lot of them just place it in there. I pulled one kilt apart to alter it and the interfacing just dropped to the floor. There are just so many times when I see kiltmakers take shortcuts that I just feel a lot better knowing that I don't take any shortcuts and that is one of the things I take pride in. A lot of times - there are a lot of good kiltmakers out there. A lot of good companies, a lot of good mills. But there are still some out there that aren't very good, so it is always best just to ask around - ask for references.

The biggest thing though, I guess about wearing the kilt, and that is one of the biggest things that is important. The kilt is supposed to be around the waist. I see a lot of younger men wearing it around their hips, really low down.

Highland Games: That would just mean that the kilt hangs too low? How does that relate to wearing it around the hips versus around the waist?

Cathy: Okay. When you wear it around the waist - if you have a person who is not overweight, who has a trim figure, the waist is the narrowest part - so when you have the belt around the waist, around the kilt to help hold the kilt up, that's where it is going to fit and be the most comfortable. There are a lot of guys who wear it low, on their hip and as a result the kilt hangs low below the knees. But then what happens is it cuts across the back of your calves when you are walking. Additionally, when the kilt is made, from the top of the pleats to the bottom of the pleats where they is sewn is apportioned from the waist to the widest portion of the seat. That is actually designed to fit to a person's figure. So it not like you buy a kilt off the rack like you buy pants off the rack. They are all uniquely tailored to the customer. So when you wear the kilt down lower than where it should be, it doesn't fit right. It hangs kind of awkward and sometimes it will even flare out like a skirt or the hem will just kind of wave back and forth like a skirt instead of like a nice attractive looking kilt.

There are a lot of things, though, that I have seen. One guy had never worn a kilt before and he came out of the dressing room with the pleats in the front and the flat apron in the back and of course that's backwards. We promptly corrected him.

Now one of the things that some individuals are not aware of is that a man's kilt is cut differently than a ladies pleated skirt or kilted skirt in that on a ladies skirt, the fringe panel opens on the left. A man's kilt opens up on the right. And every once and a while you'll find someone who is new and they have been given a kilt from somebody who has one to sell and so sometimes you'll see young men wearing a ladies pleated skirt because what it is I got this off of the Internet for $50. Well, no wonder, its a ladies pleated skirt.

Highland Games: Are these still made of worsted wool?

Cathy: It's still made of wool, but it's like going into a shop and buying a woman's shirt or a woman's blouse versus a man's shirt, which buttons differently than a woman's shirt does, and that is how a person can easily tell and it's the same thing with a kilt. With a man's kilt, the fringed opening is on the right hip, whereas with a ladies kilt, the fringed opening is on the left panel side.

Highland Games: Anything else?

Cathy: Another pet peeve for a lot of people are men who don't know how to sit in a kilt or who think it is funny to sit improperly in a kilt particularly if they are regimental. What a man should do is to spread his knees slightly, push the apron down, and then relax the knees back together, so that the apron will dip down low between his legs and cover him. Be modest about it. Because at the games there are a lot of women, a lot of children and it's in very bad taste, it's completely improper and unacceptable to flash people like that. I met one gentlemen - well, he's not even a gentlemen - he thought it was funny to go around and flash people. My children join me at the games. I don't need my children to see that. It is a person's own decision what he wears under the kilt. He doesn't need to share that with the world.

There are certain areas where it is not acceptable to go without underwear. Athletes - it is part of the regulations. They must wear some form of shorts. The dancers - the Highland dancers - they wear briefs. A lot of performers do wear briefs just because of those issues.

Highland Games: About the alteration of kilts. It's been known for many years now that people do gain weight - sometimes lose weight. To what extent can a kilt be altered to accomodate changes in size like this?

Cathy: It depends on first of all on the way the kilt was made. There are some kilts that when they are made they know they are going to gain weight, or like a young person they are going to have this kilt as they grow older. So if a hidden pleat is sewn into it, that certainly does allow for extra space for alterations. Most often, the first couple of inches of alteration can all be done by moving the buckles and straps forward or back and forth. Anything more than two or three inches, then you actually have to dig into the kilt. There is a turn under, there is a box pleat, there is the first pleat behind the apron where there is extra material, so there is where you get a little bit of room to alter. I have altered as much as 5 inches to make the apron larger. Now one gentleman had received a kilt - it didn't start out as his - but in order to fit him into it, I actually had to order a whole new piece of material, turn the apron into pleats, and attach a new piece to the apron. Basically, I had to add 5 inches into the pleats. So if you can get the new piece of material to match the original piece of tartan, then you can add as much as you want.

Highland Games: But isn't one pattern just like another? Why should matching be a problem?

Cathy: Over the years, dye lots will change. Over the years, as the kilt is sunbeaten and weathered, that will differ. In some situations, if you have a tartan that is woven by one mill, and then you get material from a different mill, it won't quite match even though the thread counts are the same. The hues, the dye lots will be completely different. So sometimes you have those issues. One situation with the MacDuff kilt, it was made by one mill, it is one of the major mills that I work with, very fine quality, but the kilt was 15 years old. She had gained weight since she had first had it made. She asked me if I could alter it by ordering a new piece to attach onto the apron. So I ordered a yard of the material from the same mill. But because of the 15 year difference, not only was their a change in the dye lot, but they had a new master weaver, so the actual size of the pattern had changed slightly. Enough to where I could not add on a new piece.

Highland Games: Now in nearly all tartan patterns, it is supposed to be symmetric in that the warp and the weft are identical. But when you weave it, just how close is that. Is the sett exactly equal.

Cathy: On most of the tartans, the warp and weft are symmetrical, and they are very, very close. Still, when I do assemble a kilt, I keep the warp - all of it is the same. I don't change the knap at all. Most of the tartan as it comes off the loom - this is what you call a usable felt edge. So you see how this comes off the loom just like this. It doesn't need to be hemmed. So when I do make the kilt, this edge will be along the entire length of the kilt. This is what will be down at the bottom. So we don't turn it on its side to sew any extra pieces or use anything of that nature.

Higfhland Games: Without resorting to any conventions, or artificial conventions, can you define the word "kilt" in such a way as to differentiate a kilt from a skirt?

Cathy: Short words, no. A skirt is basically a woman's garment. A kilt is predominantly a man's garment.

Highland Games: That's a societal convention.

Cathy: Yeah, I understand. But a skirt - normally when you think of a skirt, it flares out a little bit. A kilt, when a man is standing still, when a person is wearing a kilt and standing still, it fits the body snuggly from the waist to the hips and then drops straight down. And so when a kilt is well-made and well maintained, that is the way it shoiuld appear.

One of the problems with that is the dry cleaners don't know how to press it. I have one guy came over to me with his kilt. He had taken it to the dry cleaners and had them fix it three times and it still flared out like a skirt. Now there are two sides of the pleat that you have to pay attention to. The outside fold of the pleat is supposed to be straight up and down, but on the inside of the pleat, that should also be straight up and down, so what happens is that even though the outside of the pleat is straight up and down, it might be straight up and down like this, and what happens is I see it go like that and basically open out and be pressed out like that causing it to flare out like a skirt.

And then of all things they have the knife pleats flared out and then the dry cleaners think that the apron pleat should also be straight up and down so they press those things straight up and down instead of at a slight taper. The apron edge should be a slight taper so that the angle from the top all the way down to the bottom there is anywhere from an inch to an inch and a half worth of an angle so it is pressed in an A-line. So the dry cleaners take out that A-line so it is straight up and down. This will cause the apron to kick out - curl outwards so to speak. So that is the first thing that these dry cleaners do and they don't know how to do it. I recommend that if the person has a fair hand with a needle, to lay their kilt down on a table and take some cheap old thread and basically baste down the hem of the kilt the way it should be and then take that into the dry cleaners. This does two things. The dry cleaner can't possibly screw up the pleats that way. And secondly, it is cheaper, because now they can't charge you per pleat when they press it. Bonus. Scottish. Cheap.

The above interview is copyright © 2005 by James F. Perry and is hereby released under the terms of the Gnu Free Documentation License. Please note, however, that while the GFDL concerns the copyrights to the above material, the subject of this interview may enjoy, and in fact should be presumed to enjoy, certain rights to privacy and publicity associated with his name and image and that these rights are rooted in public law. Users of this material bear the sole responsibility of determining whether or not such privacy/publicity rights are implicated and of conforming to whatever public policy regulations exist regarding same.