Of Kilts and Yardage
OF KILTS AND YARDAGE
©2004 Matthew A. C. Newsome, GTS, FSA Scot.
published in the Scottish Banner, February 2005
More writings on Highland Dress can be found on his web site, www.albanach.org.
When it comes to kilts, some people seem to simply be obsessed with the amount of cloth involved. I can't tell you the number of times I've been told that a "true kilt" (whatever that is) must contain eight yards of cloth, no more, no less. Or that the feileadh-mhor of old contained at least nine yards of cloth, hence the phrase "the whole nine yards" (a saying that actually was born in the trenches of WWI, referring to ammunition belts).
In reality, the cloth that went into the making of a feileadh-mhor (or belted plaid) was only 25" wide, more or less. The length of cloth was cut in half, and then the selvedge edges stitched together, to get a piece half as long but twice as wide. So, a "nine yard" belted plaid would actually only be four and a half yards long and 50" (or so) wide. They often contained even less cloth than this. Surviving orders for military tartans sometimes request as little as six and a half yards for a feileadh-mhor, meaning the finished product would have been but three and a quarter yards in length.
The trouble arises when a misguided but well intentioned reenactor decides to don the belted plaid with a full nine yards of 60" wide tartan cloth - no wonder people often say the feileadh-mhor was much too cumbersome for soldierly wear.
And what about modern kilts? It should be obvious to any who think about it that it is impossible for any kilt maker to guarantee that each and every kilt he makes will have exactly eight yards of cloth. To begin with, not all men are created equal. The size of the gentleman does have some bearing on the amount of cloth used in a kilt. But also important is the size of the sett (pattern) of the tartan.
Kilts today are typically either pleated to sett or to stripe (where a particular line of the tartan is centered on each pleat). Either style requires the pleats to be a certain depth, depending on the repeat of your tartan. A tartan with a large repeat will have deep pleats. A tartan with a small repeat will have more shallow pleats. So an "eight yard kilt" may contain six, seven, eight, or nine yards of cloth, depending.
Many kilt makers today are offering kilts with reduced yardage. Lochcarron of Scotland sells "casual kilts" that are made in the same style as their standard kilts, but are machine stitched and typically use only about four yards of cloth. Geoffrey (Tailor) offers a similar product called the "fun kilt." Hector Russell offers a four yard "Hillwalker kilt" with pockets, even!
Many deride these garments as somehow being inferior products. I have even had one kilt maker in Scotland, when asked if he offered a four yard kilt, tell me in an indignant tone that he was not interested in making "women's skirts!"
Is there anything wrong with a four yard kilt? Absolutely not! In fact, history shows us that when the kilt was being worn by the Highland people, as an everyday garment, the typical amount of cloth used was about four yards. It was not until the kilt became the stuff of ceremonial wear that tailors began to go overboard with the cloth.
As stated earlier, the original feileadh-mhor contained, on average, three and a half to four and a half yards of cloth. When this garment evolved into the feileadh-beag sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, we find that the length of the cloth was consistent. The feileadh-beag was simply the lower half of the feileadh-mhor, and where the feileadh-mhor was four yards doubled, the feileadh-beag was four yards single width.
The feileadh-beag began to be tailored into the modern kilt at the very end of the eighteenth century. And we should not be surprised to find that these very first tailored kilts all contained about four yards of cloth. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving regimental kilt is a Gordon, dated to 1796. It is box pleated and contains exactly 3 yards and 2 inches of cloth. This kilt is documented in Bob Martin's All About Your Kilt, revised and expanded edition.
You will also find documented in this excellent resource an early Seaforth Highlanders kilt (MacKenzie tartan) containing 4 yards, 12 inches of cloth; a civilian kilt in the Robertson tartan from 1820 with four yards; an early nineteenth century Cameron of Erracht kilt containing 3 yards and 6 inches. I could go on and on.
The Scottish Tartans Museum of Franklin, NC, has two early kilts on display c. 1800, both box pleated. One, in the Locheil tartan, is just seven inches shy of four yards. The other, a MacDuff kilt, contains four yards of cloth pleated into only six very wide box pleats.
These were kilts that were worn by real Scottish Highlanders, be they soldiers or civilians, for daily wear. They were not costumes or ceremonial garb. They were clothes that were lived in, worked in, and played in, much like our blue jeans today. And, for both economic and utilitarian purposes, four yards simply makes a better kilt.
First of all, reducing the cost of materials reduces the cost of the finished product. Having a lower priced kilt to bring to market is one of the motivating factors behind the "casual kilt" offered by today's kilt makers. But most importantly, a four yard kilt is simply more comfortable. Think about it. A four yard kilt will have one to two yards of cloth in the front overlapping aprons, and the other two or three yards of cloth pleated in the back. It is a very balanced garment, one that you scarcely feel that you have on.
The first time I wore a four yard kilt, box pleated, was on my wedding day. I put it on at nine in the morning and did not take it off until after the party at ten o'clock at night. After thirteen hours in the kilt, I was still just as comfortable as ever. Compare that to the feeling of release I get after taking off a heavy weight eight yard kilt (seven yards of which are in the back) after an eight hour work day. Other people I know who wear a four yard kilt express the same sentiment.
Most importantly, though, the myth needs to be dispelled that the recent trend towards a four yard kilt is a modern innovation, a novelty that will pass. In actuality, it is the eight yard kilt that is the novelty! As late as 1870, a typical regimental kilt only contained about five yards of cloth. As we get into the early twentieth century, we begin to see both knife pleating and pleating to the sett becoming popular, which resulted in kilts being made from six, seven, and even eight or more yards of cloth.
The four yard kilt, whether box pleated as of old, or knife pleated in today's fashion, is a welcome return to a time when kilts were worn for more than just weddings and Burns Suppers. And anything that will encourage more people to wear the kilt more often is just fine by me!