The kilt is a knee-length garment with pleats at the rear, originating in the traditional dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century. Since the 19th century it has been associated with the wider culture of Scotland in general, or with Celtic (and more specifically Gaelic) heritage elsewhere. It is most often made of woollen cloth in a tartan pattern.

Though the Scottish kilt is most often worn mainly on formal occasions or at Highland Games and sports events, it has also been adapted as an item of fashionable informal male clothing in recent years.

Forms of the Kilt

The name 'kilt' is applied to a range of garments:

  • the traditional Scottish garment, either in its historical form, or in the modern adaptation now usual in Scotland (cf. History of the kilt), usually in a tartan pattern
  • the Irish kilt, based on the Scottish garment but traditionally made in a single (solid) colour
  • variants of the Scottish kilt adopted in other Celtic nations, such as the Welsh cilt and the Cornish cilt
  • other skirt-like garments designed for men, but more or less different in structure from the Scottish kilt, including "Contemporary kilts"
  • certain types of pleated wrapover skirt worn as school uniform by girls.

According to the OED, the noun derives from a verb to kilt, originally meaning "to gird up; to tuck up (the skirts) round the body", itself of Scandinavian origin.

The Scottish kilt

The Scottish kilt displays uniqueness of design, construction, and convention which differentiate it from other garments fitting the general description. It is a tailored garment that is wrapped around the wearer's body at the natural waist (between the lowest rib and the hip) starting from one side (usually the wearer's left), around the front and back and across the front again to the opposite side. The fastenings consist of straps and buckles on both ends, the strap on the inside end usually passing through a slit in the waistband to be buckled on the outside; alternatively it may remain inside the waistband and be buckled inside.

The kilt covers the body from the waist down to just above the knees. The overlapping layers in front are called "aprons" and are flat; the single layer of fabric around the sides and back is pleated. A kilt pin is fastened to the front apron on the free corner (but is not passed through the layer below). Underwear may or may not be worn, as the wearer prefers: in some circumstances underwear is prohibited by military regulations, but is generally required, or at least recommended, for activities such as dancing.

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 the kilt is to be worn (except that in the national dances, the female competitors will be wearing the Aboyne dress).


The history of the kilt stretches back to at least late 16th century Scotland. However, the nationalism of that tradition is relatively recent. It was only with the Romantic Revival of the early 19th century that the highland kilt was adopted by Lowlanders and the Scottish Diaspora as a symbol of national identity. People from other countries with Celtic connections, some Irish, Cornish, Welsh and Manx, have also adopted tartan kilts in recent times, although to a lesser degree.

The kilt first appeared as the great kilt, a full length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder, or brought up over head as a cloak. The small kilt or walking kilt (similar to the 'modern' kilt) did not develop until the late 17th or early 18th century, and is essentially the bottom half of the great kilt.

Design and construction


The typical kilt as seen at modern Highland games events is made of twill woven worsted wool. The twill weave used for kilts is a 2-2 type, meaning that each weft thread passes over and under two warp threads at a time. The result is a distinctive diagonal weave pattern in the fabric which is called the twill line. This kind of twill, when woven according to a given color pattern, or sett (see below), is called tartan. In contrast, the Irish kilt traditionally was made from solid color cloth, with saffron or green being the most widely used colours. Kilting fabric weights are given in ounces per yard and run from the very heavy regimental worsted of approximately 18–22 oz. down to a light worsted of about 10–11 oz. 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. Some patterns are available in only a few weights.

A modern 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. The kilt is usually made without a hem because a hem would make the garment too bulky and cause it to hang incorrectly. 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 the size of the person. For a full kilt, 8 yards of fabric would be used regardless of size and the number of pleats and depth of pleat would be adjusted according to their size. For a very large waist, it may be necessary to use 9 yards of cloth.

Setts (tartan patterns)

One of the most distinctive features of the authentic Scots kilt is the tartan pattern, or sett, it exhibits. The association of particular patterns with individual clans and families can be traced back perhaps one or two centuries. It was only in the Victorian era (19th century) that the system of named tartans we know today began to be systematically recorded and formalized, mostly by weaving companies for mercantile purposes. Up until this point, highland tartans held regional associations rather than being identified with any particular clan. Today there are also tartans for districts, counties, societies and corporations. There are also setts for States and Provinces, schools and universities, sporting activities, individuals, and commemorative and simple generic patterns that anybody can wear. See History of the kilt for the process by which these associations came about.

Setts are always arranged horizontally and vertically, never diagonally (except when adapted for ladies' skirts). They are specified by their thread counts, the sequence of colors and their units of width. 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 are the actual number of threads, but as long as the proportions are maintained, the resulting pattern will be the same. This thread count also includes a pivot point indicated by the slash between the colour and thread number. The weaver is supposed to reverse the weaving sequence at the pivot point to create a mirror image of the pattern. This is called a symmetrical tartan. 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.

Setts are further characterized by their size, the number of inches (or centimetres) 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 the fabric the thicker the threads will be, and thus the same number of threads of a heavier weight fabric will occupy more space. The colours given in the thread count are specified as in heraldry, although tartan patterns are not heraldic. The exact shade which is used is a matter of artistic freedom and will vary from one fabric mill to another as well as in dye lot to another within the same mill. Tartans are commercially woven in four standard colour variations that describe the overall tone. "Ancient" or "Old" colours may be characterized by a slightly faded look intended to resemble the vegetable dyes that were once used, although in some cases "Old" simply identifies a tartan that was in use before the current one. Ancient greens and blues are lighter while reds appear orange. "Modern" colours are bright and show off modern aniline dyeing methods. The colours are bright red, dark hunter green, and usually navy blue. "Weathered" or "Reproduction" colours simulate the look of older cloth weathered by the elements. Greens turn to light brown, blues become gray, and reds are a deeper wine colour. The last colour variation is "Muted" which tends toward earth tones. The greens are olive, blues are slate blue, and red is an even deeper wine colour. This means that of the approximately 7,000 registered tartans available there are four possible colour variations for each, resulting in nearly 30,000 tartans.

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. Although many tartans are added every year, most of the registered patterns available today were created in the 19th century by commercial weavers who had a large variety of colours to work with. The rise of Highland romanticism and the growing Anglicization of Scottish culture by the Victorians at the time led to registering tartans with clan names. Before that, most of these patterns were more connected to geographical regions than to any clan. There is therefore nothing symbolic about the colours, and nothing about the patterns is a reflection of the status of the wearer.


Although low quality kilts can be obtained in standard sizes, a quality kilt is tailored to the individual proportions of the wearer. At least three measurements, the waist, hips, and length of the kilt, are usually required. Sometimes the rise (distance above the waist) or the fall (distance from waistline to the widest part of the hips) is also required.

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 that it causes "scalloping" of the fabric where it is buckled.

Additionally, the length of the kilt when buckled at the waist should reach a point no lower than halfway across the kneecap nor higher than about an inch above it.

Pleating and stitching

A kilt can be pleated with either box or knife pleats. A knife pleat is a simple fold, while the box pleat is bulkier, consisting of two knife pleats back-to-back. Knife pleats are the most common in modern civilian kilts. Regimental traditions vary. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders use box pleats, while the Black Watch make their kilts of the same tartan with knife pleats. These traditions were also passed on to affiliated regiments in the Commonwealth, and were retained in successor battalions to these regiments in the amalgamated Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Pleats can be arranged relative to the pattern in two ways. In pleating to the stripe, a vertical stripe is selected and the fabric is folded so that this stripe runs down the center of each pleat. The result is that along the back and sides of the kilt horizontal bands appear which look different from the front than from the back. This is often called military pleating because it is the style adopted by many military regiments. It is also widely used by pipe bands.

In pleating to the sett the fabric is folded so that the pattern of the sett is repeated all around the kilt (especially in the waistband). This is done by taking up one full sett in each pleat, or two full setts if they are small. This causes the kilt to look much the same from both front and back.

Any pleat is characterized by depth and width. The portion of the pleat that protrudes under the overlying pleat is the size or width. The pleat width is selected based on the size of the sett and the amount of fabric to be used in constructing the kilt, and will generally vary from about 1/2" to about 3/4".

The depth is the part of the pleat which is folded under the overlying pleat. It depends solely on the size of the tartan sett even when pleating to the stripe, since the sett determines the spacing of the stripes.

The number of pleats used in making the kilt depends upon how much material is to be used in constructing the garment and upon the size of the sett.

The pleats across the fell are tapered slightly since the wearer's waist will be narrower than his hips and the pleats are usually stitched down either by machine or by hand.

In Highland dancing, it is easy to see the effect of the stitching on the action of the kilt. 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. 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.

Kilt care

As the kilt is made of wool, it should not simply be cleaned in a washing machine along with other laundry. Although the cloth is pre-shrunk, a washing machine would spoil the pleats and the kilt would need to be pressed. Instead, there are two main methods by which a kilt can be laundered: dry cleaning and hand laundering in cold or lukewarm water.

Expert recommendations differ on the better 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, as a result, it "will soil more easily after it has been dry-cleaned", but Matthew Newsome, 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 requires 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.

Kilt accessories

The Scottish kilt is usually worn with kilt hose (woollen socks), turned down at the knee, often with garter flashes, and a sporran (Gaelic for "purse": a type of pouch), which hangs around the waist from a chain or leather strap. This may be plain or embossed leather, or decorated with sealskin, fur, or polished metal plating.

Other common accessories, depending on the formality of the context, include

  • belt (usually with embossed buckle)
  • jacket (of various traditional designs)
  • sgian dubh (Gaelic: "black knife": a small sheathed knife worn in the top of the right hose)
  • Ghillie brogues

Styles of kilt wear

Today most Scotsmen regard the kilt as formal dress or ceremonial national dress. Although there are still a few people who wear the kilt daily, it is generally owned or hired to be worn at weddings or other formal occasions, much the same way as top hat and tails are in England or tuxedos in America, and may be worn by anyone regardless of nationality or descent. For formal wear, the kilt is usually worn with a Prince Charlie or an Argyll jacket. (Commercial suppliers have now produced equivalent jackets with Irish and Welsh themed styling.)

The kilt is also used for parades by groups such as the Scouts, and in many places the kilt is seen in force at Highland games and pipe band championships as well as being worn at Scottish country dances and ceilidhs.

Certain regiments/units of the British Army and armies of other Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) still continue to wear the kilt as part of dress or duty uniform, though they have not been used in combat since 1940. Uniforms in which the kilt is worn include Ceremonial Dress, Service Dress, and Barracks Dress. The kilt is considered appropriate for ceremonial parades, office duties, less formal parades, walking out, mess dinners, and classroom instruction/band practice. Ceremonial kilts have also been developed for the U.S. Marine Corps, and the pipe and drum bands of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.

In recent years, the kilt has also become increasingly common in Scotland and around the world for casual wear, for example with the Jacobite shirt. It is not uncommon to see the kilt worn at Irish pubs in the US, and it is becoming somewhat less rare to see them in the workplace. Casual use of the kilt dressed down with lace-up boots or moccasins, and with tee shirts or golf shirts, is becoming increasingly more familiar at Highland Games. The kilt is associated with a sense of Scottish national pride and will often be seen being worn, along with a football top, when members of the Tartan Army are watching a football or rugby match. The small ornamental Sgian Dubh dagger is often omitted where security concerns are paramount (for example, they are not allowed on commercial aircraft). For the same reasons, the traditional Sgian Dubh is sometimes substituted by a wooden or plastic alternative, as its use is now largely ornamental (with only the hilt showing over the top of the hose).

The Irish kilt

Starting with Dál Riata, the Scots and the Irish have been closely entwined peoples.

Though the origins of the Irish kilt continue to be a subject of debate, current evidence suggests that the kilt itself originated in the Scottish Highlands and Isles and was adopted by Irish nationalists at the turn of the 20th century as a symbol of Celtic identity.

A garment that has often been mistaken for the kilt in early depictions is the Irish 'Lein-croich', a long tunic traditionally made from solid colour cloth, with black, saffron and green being the most widely used colours. Solid colored Irish kilts were first adopted for use by the Irish Regiments serving in the British Army, but they could often be seen in late 19th and early 20th century photos in Ireland especially at political and musical gatherings, as the kilt was adopted as a symbol of Gaelic nationalism in Ireland during this period. Tweed kilts were also not uncommon in both Scotland and Ireland and have been popular with sportsmen, fishermen, and hunters.

Many "Irish County" tartans were designed by Polly Wittering, first produced in 1996 by the House of Edgar, of Perth in Scotland. Marton Mills in West Yorkshire produced a competing "Irish County Crest Collection" based on the colours from Irish county crests, resulting in tartans that are considered aesthetically questionable by many traditionalists. There are also a number of "Irish District" tartans most of which are recent designs by Lochcarron of Scotland. The Ulster tartan is one of the oldest registered Irish tartans. It was found by a farmer, W.G. Dixon, in County Londonderry in 1956 as he uncovered pieces of clothing made from the design. The Belfast Museum and Art Gallery dated the material from between the 1590s to 1650s. Its exact origins are unknown, but it is likely that came from a Scottish pioneer during the beginning of the Ulster plantation period when the Scots first came in great numbers to Ulster. There are other generic Irish tartans including the Irish National, St. Patrick's, Tara, and Clodagh. Some Irish family tartans have been appearing over the years, although these are few at the moment more are being created. O'Brien, Sullivan, Murphy, Fitzpatrick, and Forde are fairly common examples of Irish family tartans.

In present day Ireland the kilt is still seen very much as being primarily Scottish, and the current crop of county and district tartans is largely unknown in Ireland and indeed difficult to obtain, having been designed and marketed primarily for the Irish-American market. As they have been neither designed nor manufactured in Ireland itself it is questionable whether they can be strictly described as Irish. In the book District Tartans by Gordon Teall of Teallach and Philip D Smith Jr (ISBN 0 85683 085 2) only three tartans are identified as being distinctly Irish; these are Ulster, Tara, and Clodagh. As noted above the Ulster tartan originates from around 1590–1650 and is probably Scottish in origin. The Tara was first noted around 1880 and was originally called Murphy. The Clodagh has an earliest date of 1971 with uncertainty as to its original designer or first appearance.

Day-to-day kilt wearing is rarely if ever encountered. Within the world of Irish dancing the boy's kilt has been largely abandoned, especially since the worldwide popularity of Riverdance and the revival and interest in Irish dancing generally. There are exceptions to these trends in Ireland. A vibrant piping scene in Ireland means that there are many kilted bands throughout the whole of Ireland, particularly in the north of the island. The majority of these bands wear tartan kilts, the solid colour saffron kilt being almost exclusively the preserve of the pipe bands of the Republic's Defence Forces and the British Army's Irish regiments.

The kilt in other Celtic nations

Although not a traditional component of national dress outside Scotland, the kilt has become recently popular in the other Celtic nations as a sign of Celtic identity. Kilts and tartans can therefore also be seen in Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, the Tras-os-Montes region in the North of Portugal, and Galicia in Spain, as well as parts of England, particularly the North East. Nowadays with Welsh nationalism on the rise and a resurgence of Welsh national pride, the kilt (Welsh: Cilt). Although they are generally seen these days in formal settings like weddings, there has been an increase in the number of people wearing their kilt to a rugby or football match, paired with a jersey rather than a formal jacket.

The St David's Tartan or brithwe Dewi Sant is one of the most popular tartans in Wales, but individual family tartans are being produced, despite there being no evidence that the Welsh (or any other Celtic nation for that matter) traditionally used tartan to identify families. Williams, Jones, Thomas, Evans, and Davies are among the most popular tartans and common names in Wales. The Welsh National tartan was designed by D.M. Richards in 1967 to demonstrate Wales' connection with the greater Celtic world. Its colours (green, red, and white) are the colours of the Welsh national flag.

There are currently 12 Breton tartans of which Brittany National (National Breton), Brittany Walking, Lead it Of and 9 tartans for the traditional countries which compose Brittany: Kerne, Leon, Tregor, Gwened, Dol, St Malo, Rennes, Nantes, St Brieuc. All Breton tartans are officially recorded in Scotland.

Ancient Egyptian Kilt

The Shendyt is often called a kilt. The Shendyt was worn by Pharaohs and warriors in Ancient Egypt. It is a piece of pleated linen wrapped around the body at the waist.

Contemporary kilt

Contemporary kilts (also known as modern kilts) have appeared in the clothing marketplace in Scotland , the USA and Canada in a range of fabrics, including leather, denim, corduroy, and cotton. They may be designed for formal or casual dress, for use in sports or outdoor recreation, or as white or blue collar workwear. Some are closely modelled on traditional Scottish kilts, but others are similar only in being knee-length skirts for men. They may have box pleats, symmetrical knife pleats, or no pleats at all, and be fastened by studs or velcro instead of buckles. Many are designed to be worn without a sporran, and may have pockets or tool belts attached.

Kilts are sometimes referred to by enthusiasts for their daily use as Male Un-bifurcated Garments or "Mugs", though strictly this term also covers other garments such as sarongs which are regarded as viable alternatives to trousers (bifurcated garments). In 2008, a USPS letter carrier, Dean Peterson, made formal proposal that the kilt, as a Male Unbifurcated Garment, be approved as an acceptable postal uniform — for reasons of comfort. The proposal was defeated at the convention of the 220,000-member National Letter Carriers' Association.

See also

External links


  • Barbara Tewksbury and Elsie Stuehmeyer, The Art of Kiltmaking (Celtic Dragon Press, Rome, NY, 2001 ISBN 0-9703751-0-7)
  • J. Charles Thompson, So You're Going to Wear the Kilt (Heraldic Art Press, Arlington, VA, 1979 ISBN 0-86228-017-6)
  • Gordon Teall of Teallach and Philip D Smith Jr, District Tartans (Shepheard-Walwyn London, UK 1992 ISBN 0 85683 085 2)

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