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Folklife Festival 2003 > Scotland > Textiles > Kilt
Kilts are one of the great icons of Scotland. Based on a clothing style that might date back to Roman togas, kilts were traditionally were worn by Gaelic-speaking male Highlanders in northern Scotland. In Lowland Scotland, men wore trousers or "trews."

The modern kilt developed from the feileadh mór or "great plaid" - a single, non-tailored length of cloth gathered around the waist by a belt, pinned at the shoulder by a brooch, and pleated around the thighs. In the 18th century, a less cumbersome version -- the feileadh beag or "small plaid" -- gained popularity. Unlike its predecessor, it was cropped at the waist and considerably more tailored.

The association of tartan patterns with specific families or clans can be traced back to the early 19th century. Today, there are over 3,500 tartans with family or regional associations, and when ordering a kilt, a buyer usually specifies a particular tartan. Until recently, kilts were worn primarily to formal events, but today they are increasingly worn to football matches, informal parties, and as everyday attire.

The Keith Kilt School

Located in Morayshire in northern Scotland, the Keith Kilt School was founded in 1994 by master kilt-maker Robert McBain, who trained as a tailor in the British Army. Established with funding from the European Union and the Moray Council, the world's first kilt school will hopefully revitalize the local economy and answer a need for qualified kilt-makers throughout Scotland. More than 75 craftspeople have completed the rigorous 12-18 month course. To receive certificates, students must tailor 15 kilts and master basic business practices. McBain's former students have established the Keith Kilt Makers Guild.

It takes approximately 20-25 hours to make a kilt. Almost all of the work is still done by hand. A tartan's pattern must remain unbroken throughout - even in the pleats. This means that each of the 3,500+ tartan designs must be folded in its own way to make it "lay right" - a process that sometimes requires hours of thought and trial. In addition to kilts, McBain is also an enthusiastic maker of Scottish trews - which he believes are overdue for a revival.

Coming to the Festival...
Keith Kilt School / Robert McBain & Martin Flynn (Keith, Morayshire)

—McBain, founder and the director of the internationally renowned Keith Kilt School, was trained as a tailor in the British Army and served in the Scottish Regiment for 14 years before returning to his home town of Inverurie. Traditionally, kilt shops have subcontracted their work to home sewers, but McBain realized that there was a growing shortage of well-trained kilt makers and obtained Grampian Council and EU funding to establish a kilt-making school in Keith as a local economic revitalization project. Since 1994, he has trained more than 75 kilt makers, who, in turn, have established the Keith Kilt Guild. Mr. McBain will be joined by his apprentice Martin Flynn.

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