Highland Games

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, which is worn by both men and women, 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.

More specifically, 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 definition 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 (around the sides and in the back) 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 typical kilt as seen at modern Highland games events is made of twill woven 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. (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.

For a kilt for a typical adult, about 6 to 8 yards of single width (about 26 to 30 inches) or about 3 to 4 yards of double width (about 54 to 60 inches) fabric would be required. The exact amount 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, countrys and other geographical regions, families, 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 referred to in the thread count are specified as in heraldry (though it should be noted that 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. In addition, tartan is available in some standard color variations knows as Modern, Ancient, and Weathered. The Ancient tartans employ more subdued colors by comparison to the Modern versions in an attempt to mimic the look of the vegetable dyes used in the past, 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. Most kiltmakers require at least three such measurements, and some want a fourth as well. The three measurements which all kiltmakers require are those of waist, hips, and length. A fourth - the fell, or the distance from waistline to the widest part of the hips - is sometimes also required.

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.[3]

Pleating and stitching[]

Pleating to the stripe

There are two basic methods of pleating a kilt.[4] 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 left 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 (see gallery photo of that name). 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). The result is a kilt 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 and the amount of fabric to be used in constructing the kilt. It will generally vary from about 1/2" to about 3/4".

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 wil depend solely on the size of the tartan sett (one full repeat of the sett being taken up in each pleat).

File:Kilt stitching 001.jpg

The fell of a kilt

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. 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 pattern across the back of the garment (see the above discussion about pleating to the sett or pleating to the stripe).

That portion of the kilt from the waistline to the widest portion of the seat is called the fell (see photo at right). The pleats across the fell are tapered slightly due to the fact that in the normal situation the wearer's waist will be somewhat smaller in circumference than his/her hips. In addition, the pleats in this portion of the kilt will be stitched down. This could be either hand stitched or machine stitched.

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.

On a properly fitted kilt, the pleats will hang straight down from the hipline. 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 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" [5] 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 four holes in the straps and it is made to fit on the second (tightest) 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 one could move the buckles, both the one at the waist and the underapron buckle.

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. For one common enough problem here is that the wearer is wearing 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 in length is required.

Normally, a kilt is made without a hem, instead being made on the 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 there may be a visible hem. The only other way to shorten the kilt is to take material off the top of the kilt. This requires removing the stitches from the rise (that portion, about a couple of inches in length, which lies above the true waist) and maybe also a portion of the fell, removing the excess material, and re-stitching.


  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. Instructions for measuring for a kilt from Geoffrey Kilts - One example of measuring instructions from a noted kiltmaker
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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