A bit of history…
Those of you who know me and have heard my ‘pitch’ may have heard me answer the question (which is asked a LOT), “Which is better… a hand-sewn kilt or a machine-sewn kilt?” My answer is ALWAYS, “It depends on the skill of the kiltmaker.”
I’ve seen high-quality hand-sewn kilts and poor-quality hand-sewn kilts. Just like I’ve seen high-quality machine-sewn kilts and poor-quality machine-sewn kilts. In essence, bad kilt is the fault of the kiltmaker.
Here’s an example of what makes a bad kilt.
A while back, a pipe band who uses us as a supplier called about bringing in a couple of old kilts to be repaired and altered. Normally we do not repair other kiltmaker’s work because we don’t know what we’ll find (you’ll understand why by the end of this post). However, since these two individuals were existing customers and had purchased multiple kilts from us, we wanted to help them out. What I show below is one of the hand-sewn kilts these customers brought in for rescue.
Previously, the band had used a reasonably inexpensive, local, part-time kilt maker located in Maryland. I will not name this maker specifically, but I was quite familiar with her business. She wasn’t new to the trade; her website stated that she’d been making kilts for 38 years.
I’ve often spoken about the quality of thread being an issue when sewing a kilt. I can now show you why. When you use poor quality and reasonably thin cotton thread, it will deteriorate over time. The kilts I repaired were made in 2008 and 2010. The wool fabric itself was still in FANTASTIC shape (which tells me the kilts weren’t abused or excessively dry cleaned to cause premature deterioration of the thread). Here is some of the thread that was pulled from the kilt where the thread had snapped. Notice how fuzzy the thread is and how there are thin spots visible where it would have failed again.
I did do a burn test on this thread. When burned, the smoke was not black, it ashed up and kept burning until I blew it out. It left ashes and not a hard plastic ball. It smelled like smoke and not burning hair, so I determined it to likely be cotton.
Another issue with this particular kilt (which was compounded by the brittle disintegrating thread) was the stitches per inch. A good hand-sewn kilt will have 8 to 10 stitches per inch. More stitches per inch = more time it takes to sew, so some makers may be tempted to do less. On a hand sewn kilt, each stitch takes time and time = money. That’s the beauty of a machine sewn kilt… you set the stitches per inch by a dial on the machine and it doesn’t take any longer or shorter.
This particular kilt had 5 stitches per inch (I sampled the kilt across 10 pleats with my ruler to get a fair average # of stitches per inch). I used pins to show the location of each stitch to make it easier to see.
The issue with fewer stitches per inch is that there is more stress (“load”) born by each stitch when the body pushes out against the fabric. This is especially true when the canvas lining is not sewn in (see below). When you couple the additional stress of fewer stitches with the poor-quality thread, you get breaks in the thread. This bad kilt also did not appear to have any “lock stitches”. Lock stitches are added security — if a thread fails, the breakage stops at the locked stitch. These two pleats torn out completely due to failed stitches.
Here is a stitch that just failed and is starting to come apart.
On top of the thread issue, this kilt also had fusible lining ironed in instead of a horsehair canvas lining sewn in. Fusible lining is used by some large machine-sewn kilt-making companies in Scotland to save time (mass production). I had NEVER seen it in a hand-sewn kilt before. It saves roughly 30 to 40 minutes of labor in the makeup, but over time the fusing glue comes loose. Then presto — the internal lining is just ‘floating’ under the cotton lining, serving no purpose at all. This puts ALL of the stress on the pleat stitches. With only 5 stitches per inch, this was bound to break. The stitches holding the bottom of the cotton lining to the wool also failed (again, cheap thread).
Here you’ll notice that the scalloped pleats under the webbing are not all sewn together. This process is called ‘Steeking’. Well, funny thing…they were steeked, but the thread snapped leaving 3/4 of them dangling without any reinforcement from steeking stitches or the reinforcement of a horsehair canvas (since the fusible interfacing had come unglued). This contributed to pleat splay and having the depth of each pleat stick down below the bottom of the selvage.
I wanted to hold this bad kilt up as an example of everything we here at USA Kilts DON’T do. You see, whether a kilt is hand-sewn or machine-sewn…regardless of whether the maker has one year’s experience or 38 years, there are good and bad methods. Good practices and cheats.
A quality kilt depends on three factors:
1. Quality material – tartan, lining and leather
2. Quality thread
3. The skill of the kiltmaker
I hope this helps to explain more of what to look for the next time you are in the kilt market. I think this is also essential knowledge for any new pipe band quartermaster. Watch out for those old, hand-me-down kilts!