AskDefine | Define kilts

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  1. Plural of kilt

Extensive Definition

The kilt is a traditional garment of modern Scottish and Celtic (more specifically Gaelic) culture typically worn by men.

Kilt forms

The Kilt exists in various modern forms, and in forms inspired by the historical garment, including:
Traditionalists emphasize that the plural of kilt is the kilt rather than kilts, although the latter term has been used alongside the former and continues to gain acceptance in modern English. 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.
At modern-day Highland games gatherings in Scotland and elsewhere, the modern version of the traditional Scottish kilt is much in evidence. Historical forms of the Scottish kilt have differed in several particulars (some quite substantial) from the modern-day version.
With reference to the Scottish kilt, the 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 word kilt as used in reference to the Scottish form of the kilt in this article refers to those garments as typically seen in such competitions.
Differences between the Scottish kilt and other forms will be discussed in the sections related to those other types of kilt.

Kilt accessories

Depending on the occasion, the kilt is normally worn with accessories such as:
  • belt
  • jacket
  • sporran (a type of pouch- Gaelic for "Purse")
  • sgian dubh (a small sheathed knife worn in the top of the sock)(In Gaelic "Black Knife")
  • Ghillie Brogues
  • Kilt pin
  • Kilt socks

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. Underwear may be worn, or not, as one prefers.

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 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. 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. 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 alkaline 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.
If the kilt is being ordered from a distance, kilt makers will supply instructions and a diagram explaining how the measurements should be taken for the kilt to fit properly. Most will also recommend that another person do the actual measuring, especially for the length. Prospective kilt purchasers should follow the measurement instructions as detailed by the kilt maker of their choice.

Pleating and stitching

Starting with Dál Riata, the Scots and the Irish have been closely entwined peoples.
Though the origins of the Irish kilt are disputed, it can be said with some good deal of assurance that it originated in the Scottish Highlands and Isles by possible Irish settlers. It could have been developed by Scots, Irish, Norse Gaels, or possibly all together.
In contrast to the Scottish kilt, the Irish Lein-croich traditionally was made from solid colour cloth, with black, saffron and green being the most widely used colours. Solid colored Irish kilts can often be seen in 19th and early 20th century photos in Ireland especially at political and musical gatherings. The kilt was used 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 are largely unknown in Ireland and indeed difficult to obtain, having been designed and marketed primarily with the Irish-American market in mind. As they have neither been designed or manufactured in Ireland itself it is questionable as to 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.
On a day-to-day basis 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 vast 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.

Welsh kilt

A Welsh Kilt (Welsh: Cilt) is a type of kilt worn in Wales and by Welshmen. Although not considered a traditional component of Welsh national dress, the kilt has become recently popular in the Celtic nations as a sign of Celtic identity. Kilts and tartans can therefore also be seen in Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, the Tras-os-Montes region in the North of Portugal, and Galicia in Spain, as well as England, particularly the North East. Nowadays with Welsh nationalism on the rise and a resurgence of Welsh national pride, kilts (or cilts in Welsh) are being worn more and more by Welshmen.
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 little 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.
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.

Contemporary kilt

Contemporary kilts are becoming increasingly popular in the USA and Canada. These non-traditional kilts come in a range of styles, including leather, casual (denim, cordoroy, and cotton), formal or casual dress, athletic, hunting, white or blue collar work, and outdoor recreational kilts.

Styles of kilt wear

Today most Scotsmen see the kilt as formal dress or ceremonial dress. For Scotsmen, the kilt is usually worn with a Prince Charlie or an Argyll jacket, and commercial suppliers have now produced equivalent jackets with Irish and Welsh themed styling. They are often worn at weddings or other formal occasions, while there are still a few people who wear them daily. 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 U.S. Coast Guard.
The kilt has become normal wear for formal occasions, for example being hired for weddings in much the same way as top hat and tails are in England or dinner jackets in America, and the kilt is being worn by anyone regardless of nationality or descent. Although a white tie style exists, the more common style of formal Highland regalia is seen in Black tie or Red Sea rig.
The kilt has also become increasingly common around the world for casual wear, for example with the Jacobite shirt. It's not uncommon to see the kilt making an appearance at Irish pubs, 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 plastic alternative, as its use is now largely ornamental (with only the hilt showing over the top of the hose).

See also


  • 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)
kilts in Czech: Kilt
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kilts in Simple English: Kilt
kilts in Finnish: Kiltti
kilts in Swedish: Kilt
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