CREATING TRADITIONAL TARTAN GARMENTS
Pale winter light streams in through a glass gable-end of an oak-beamed workroom, overlooking Perthshire’s Strathearn Valley and the River Earn. Publications on tailoring, tartan and Scottish history fill a bookcase on the wall. In front of them, lengths of tartan in a variety of colours are spread out on large tables. Behind them finished kilts hang on a rail, waiting to be fitted. Tall spools of green, red, blue and black thread are ready to be used. On the tables lie pincushions and tailoring scissors.
This light, airy space is home to Marion Foster, who makes traditional kilts by hand. She came to kilt making through a love of textiles. “As a teenager I would make all my own clothes, despite it being the jeans era,” she recalls. She made her first kilt when she was 16, for her uniform as a cub scout. “I had no money to buy one, so I thought I would make it. It must have worked as I wore it for quite a while.”
Marion continued making her own clothes, then four years ago, inspired by a course she attended, she started making kilts in her spare time. At the age of 50, she decided it was time for a change. “I still had the energy and felt it was time to follow my passion,” she says. In 2011 she started making her hand-stitched kilts full time under the name of Askival of Strathearn.
Taking the measurements
“Making a kilt takes a lot of time and effort. I stitch every kilt completely by hand and making one from start to finish takes me five full days,” she says.
“When someone comes to me for a new kilt, we first decide on a tartan.” Marion has books of tartans she uses to find specific ones. Once a tartan has been chosen, she commissions the 100 per cent wool fabric from one of five remaining tartan weavers in Scotland.
Each kilt is made of one single length of fabric with two overlapping aprons at the front and pleats at the back. Because of the many folds of the pleats, approximately 32ft (10m) of fabric is used for each garment.
The kilt is shaped to the individual wearer. It should fit snugly into the small of the wearer’s back and then widen, before falling to the middle of the knee. It sits high on the waist, lying smoothly across the abdomen. If someone has a large build, the kilt should fall from the stomach, not lower down. “I think of the wearer’s shape all the time,” she says.
Accurate measurements are crucial to the final fit and hang of the kilt. Marion measures the wearer’s waist, seat and length to the centre of the knee.
Forming the pleats
A tartan may have many colours, some subtle, some more obvious. The way the pleats are created emphasises particular colours in a tartan. “It’s amazing how many colours there can be within the garment,” she says.
A tartan can be folded so the big squares and original tartan design are clearly visible. This is called sett pleating. It can also be folded so it emphasises lines on the tartan, which are a different colour. This is called pleating to the stripe.
Marion calculates how many pleats the kilt needs and their size. She bases this on the measurements she has taken, the individual tartan and how the fabric is going to be folded. Her kilts have between 27 and 34 pleats for an adult male. This is the same for a woman’s dancing kilt, although a woman’s fashion kilts varies widely. These kilts are more like skirts and often have bigger pleats. Standard kilts have pleats that are on average ¾in (2cm) wide on the outside.
After the calculations have been made, Marion cuts the tartan to the right depth. She leaves cutting the length of the fabric until all the different parts of the kilt are marked out. The aprons, or front parts, are marked out first with white chalk. It does not take long to stitch these parts, and the chalk will rub off easily when it is done.
The individual pleats are marked with special white tailor’s wax, which lasts longer. This is important as stitching the pleats takes time and must be done accurately. The marks are made on the front of the fabric, so they can be seen clearly when sewing. Marion folds and stitches every pleat individually as she goes, measuring the width and pinning it in place constantly.
“Every millimetre counts,” she says. “Twenty-seven times one millimetre makes a big difference.”
Because it is hand sewn, she can make sure every bit of fabric is exactly where it should be. Misalignment is prevented, as she can control the bouncy fabric as she sews. It is a slower process, but gives an excellent final product. “I set the standard high,” she says. “It takes me up to a day to sew the pleats.”
The pleats are stitched from the top to roughly a third of the length of the kilt. To keep them in place before the fabric is pressed, temporary basting is added lower down on each pleat.
Lifting the folds
Marion now turns the kilt over. Working on the back, she spends three hours securing each pleat in place with barely visible, small stitches. This extra stitching ensures the pleats are secured higher up, and keeps them from stretching and sagging.
Further support and shaping is provided by stitching linen canvas across the full aprons and the back pleating. It helps preventing the kilt from distorting when the straps used to fasten it are adjusted.
Once the canvas is in place, a special piece of equipment is used to shape the kilt. Called an iron, it consists of a large table with a foot switch to turn on a vacuum. This sucks the fabric to the table, keeping it flat. A steam iron is then used to flatten the pleats and mould the kilt into shape. The table also heats up to help the shaping.
Adding the buckles
Now the 32ft (10m) of fabric has been successfully concertinaed into the garment, it is time for the first fitting. Marion checks to ensure the kilt is fitting correctly and falling as it should. If she is not happy, she alters the stitching to improve the fit.
One of the final steps is to add three metal buckles, the pieces of tartan that hold the belt buckles known as chapes and belt loops. Made of the same tartan as the kilt, the chapes match up with the pattern when attached. The bar of the buckle sits over the join between the third and fourth pleat on either side. The third buckle is placed over the second and third pleat on
the right-hand side.
Marion takes great care in sewing the chapes, which need to match with precision. “It is hard on your fingers,” she says. “I use a very fine needle, but there is still a lot of fabric to go through. It is one of the most difficult things to do neatly.” She uses no thimble as her fingers have become used to the work over the years. She adds a waistband, again aligning it at the front and creating symmetry with the pattern of the tartan at the back.
The kilts are finalised with a black cotton lining. Marion embroiders Askival of Strathearn onto it. She can also add unique embroidery specified by the client, which usually mentions a name, place and year. “Once I’ve done all this, I press it one last time,” she says. At this point the temporary basting which was added to the pleats is removed. Only the final, barely visible minute stitches remain.
Everything is now ready for the final fitting. “The apron should always lie neatly at the sides without rolling or kicking out. There should be no gap between the apron and the pleats, all of which should sit straight at the bottom.”
A kilt has to be comfortable for many occasions. “You should be able to climb a mountain in it if you want,” says Marion. Her final product has approximately 40 hours of work and a great deal of love and care in it. “It’s a truly beautiful garment that can be passed down through generations.”
Words: Marieke McBean Photography: Mark Mainz
This feature about Marion Foster's kilts appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
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