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Tartan Ferret
A box-pleated kilt from Lady Chrystel Kilts (France)

The Box Pleated Kilt Swings Again!

Head and shoulders photograph of Matt Newsome.

Our feature in the November 2009 issue of Tartan Herald which told of Lady Chrystel's unique "double box pleated kilt" design, has led to a lot of interest in the original, historic box-pleated kilt, so we sat down with kilt maker and kilt historian (and newest Governor of the Scottish Tartans Authority), Matthew Newsome.

TH: Matt . . . many know you as the director of the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, North Carolina, but you're also a renowned kiltmaker. How long have you been doing that?

MN: I've been with the museum since 1997, and at that time I'd been involved in historical reenactment, so I had some experience of sewing my own clothing in that regard. But it was not until 2005 that I started making kilts. I was driving into the museum one February morning and I distinctly remember thinking that I should ask Bob Martin if he'd be willing to teach me how to make a four yard box pleated kilt. A short time later the phone rang and it was Bob. He said words to the effect of "Matt, you really ought to know how to make your own kilts; let me teach you." I think it was destiny!

TH: Bob Martin, of course, is a long time member and good friend of the STA - a recognized authority on the kilt, with over 30 years experience as a kilt maker, and author of All About Your Kilt . . . and . . . a superb portrait painter into the bargain!

MN: Correct. By that time he'd retired as a kilt maker and had moved to within an hour's drive of me, so I couldn't refuse his offer!

TH: What was it that attracted you to the old style box pleated kilt?

MH: Well,at that point I owned one already that I 'd made for my wedding. I liked the style for A box-pleated ?????? kilt.a number of reasons; the chief one being that it's an historical style not often seen today. The fact that it requires less cloth also makes it very comfortable and less expensive.

TH: Did you think there was a market for this older style of kilt?

MN: That wasn't what I was thinking. Initially I wanted to learn the kilt making process chiefly for my own education, and also so that I'd be able to make kilts for my own use. However, I found that I enjoyed the process and I made a few for myself and for friends. But there are only so many kilts a person can make for himself. So to support my kilt making habit, I thought I'd offer them for sale, both via my personal web site as well as through the Scottish Tartans Museum gift shop.

TH: Has that been successful?

MN: More than I imagined. I anticipated I'd get one or two inquiries a month from people with a special interest in historic clothing. But there's been much greater interest in this style than I expected and I've made over 400 kilts since I started, almost all of them four yards and box pleated; only a small handful of those have been for historical re-enactors.

TH: Why do you think they've proved to be so popular?

MN: Well, some people seek me out specifically because they know I specialize in the original tailored kilt. But other than that, when I'm talking to someone interested in acquiring a kilt, I don't push one style above another. I just give all the options and help steer them towards the style of kilt I think they will most enjoy wearing. Those that choose the older box pleated kilt do so for varying reasons. Some like the idea of wearing something a bit different from the norm. Others like the fact that it is historic. A lot of people are attracted to the idea of a four yard kilt, either because of the reduced cost, or because they want a lighter weight kilt. Today's four yard kilts are generally marketed as "casual kilts." They're machine sewn, and usually not made to the same standards as a traditional kilt. My box pleated kilts are entirely hand sewn, so they're a good option for Two kilts in the Moffat tartan - on the left, box-pleated; on the right - knife-pleated.those who want a lower yardage kilt, but don't want to sacrifice quality in construction.

TH: So you wouldn't consider a four yard box pleated kilt as a "casual kilt?"

MN: It's a kilt. Period. The good thing about a well made, quality kilt is that it works equally well for both formal and casual wear.

TH: Do you think the four yard box pleated kilt is going to supplant the eight yarder any time soon?

MN: No, and I really wouldn't want it to. The eight yard knife pleated kilt is a great style, and I own and wear those, as well. It's the standard kilt of today, and has been for more than a century. But there's a place for both. People shouldn't get the impression that a "real" kilt has to have eight yards. The kilt is a traditional garment with a long history, and part of what I do is help people realize that there are many styles within that tradition. We've seen a resurgence of interest in the kilt as day-to-day clothing and people want to bring the kilt "up-to-date." But it would be a grave mistake, in my opinion, to abandon tradition. When it comes to Highland attire, we should always be looking to the future and to the past because modern fashion should be an organic development from the past. So if you want to make the kilt relevant as a day-to-day garment, you should look back to a time when the kilt really was the everyday clothing of the Scottish Gael. That was the heyday of the four yard kilt.

TH: So would you consider your kilts to be historic or modern?

MN: They're modern kilts based on an historic pleating style. My kilts are not exact replicas of museum pieces. Many features of my kilts are inspired by some of the earliest tailored kilts; they have four yards of cloth, they're box pleated and I usually don't add a fringe on the apron, for example. But they also have modern features; leather straps and buckles, an interior lining, tapering from waist to hips for a better fit, etc. My kilts should not be thought of as something for historical reenactment only. They're kilts, pure and simple and they can readily be worn with contemporary Highland dress.

TH: Matt, it's been a pleasure. Any closing remarks?

MN: Just to share a bit of my own experience. I've worn many kilts in many different styles. I have kilts in my wardrobe made from worsted wool, medium and heavy weight, various tweeds; some are four yards, six yards, eight yards; some are box pleated, some knife pleated. I enjoy wearing them all. However, I must admit that the kilts I reach for most often, whether for formal or casual events, all seasons of the year, are four yard box pleated kilts made from good heavy weight worsted wool. In my experience, these are just the most comfortable and versatile kilts in my wardrobe, and a pleasure to wear. So I'm very pleased to see this style making a resurgence. I give Bob Martin full credit for reviving it with his own kilt making back in 1982, and thank him profusely for passing that knowledge on to me. I'm also very grateful to Barb Tewskbury for working with me last year to make a supplement to her Art of Kiltmaking book adapting that method to making four yard box pleated kilts. I'm confident that the work we're doing will ensure that the style of the original tailored kilt doesn't become a footnote in the history of Highland Dress.

Box Pleated Kilt Facts

• The oldest surviving tailored kilt for which we have any documentation is a regimental Gordon kilt c. 1796. It contains three yards and two inches of cloth and is box pleated to the stripe. This kilt is housed at the Scottish United Services Museum in Edinburgh Castle.
• The earliest tailored civilian kilts were pleated to no pattern at all. Two are on display at the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC. A kilt in the MacDuff tartan, c. 1800, is made from four yards and has only six very wide box pleats. Another in the Lochiel tartan from the same period has twelve box pleats.
• By 1820, pleating to the stripe was commonplace in civilian kilts, as well.

A ??????? kilt in box pleats












• The first regiment to don knife pleated kilts was the Gordon Highlanders in 1853.
• Starting in the 1840s the amount of yardage used in kilts began to gradually increase.
• The nominal eight yard kilt, knife pleated, was the norm by the end of the 1800s.
• Bob Martin's All About Your Kilt documents many early kilts, civilian and military, from museums and collections in the UK and North America.
• Bob Martin is credited with reviving the original tailored kilt in 1982, after a conversation with Scottish anthropologist Dr. Micheil MacDonald. Bob, living in South Carolina, was looking for a way to convince Americans that heavy weight wool made for a better kilt. Everyone wanted a light weight kilt to wear. Micheil suggested the older four yard box pleated style as a way to have a light weight kilt and good heavy weight wool - the best of both worlds!
• You can learn more about box pleated kilts by visiting Matt Newsome's web site, www.albanach.org. Click on the "Kilts" link in the main menu.
• Learn to make your own box pleated kilt by downloading a free supplement to The Art of Kiltmaking book at www.scottishtartans.org/boxpleat.html (note: you will need a copy of The Art of Kiltmaking to make use of the supplemental instructions).

A ??????? kilt in box pleats

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