Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mending the Kilt

Neil's antique 1920s kilt is literally falling apart. Before every Highland Games festival, my job is to inspect it and give it a quick stitch or two. Mending the kilt is an ongoing battle. Why not get a new one? They cost more than a plane ticket to Scotland. There are varying weights and styles of kilts, and that also affects cost.

But the most traditional of kilts is the military kilt, thanks to Queen Victoria who had a prudish fondness for men's well-turned calves. The kilt was more of a mini skirt before it was lengthened to a respectable knee length during the Victorian era. Much of Queen Victoria's influence still governs the style and length of kilts to this day.

The heavier military weight kilt material runs about $60 a yard and at least nine long uninterrupted yards are needed to make a kilt, hence the saying, "the whole nine yards" to cover a man.

A kilt is a lifetime investment. One doesn't simply put a hem or take a kilt in, it's all fitted exactly, so the kilt is literally made to the man. No hems in a kilt, just a straight selvage edge to the knee. Rumor has it that men were expected to kneel before the Queen, and the selvage edge of the kilt had to touch the floor.

Neil found his Farquharson kilt, in Inverness in 1981, for 35 quid on a wee back street tartan shop off the main drag.

Last winter we looked at used kilts for 75 quid at the jumble sales in the mean streets of the Barras (Barrowland—named after the street merchants' wheelbarrows during the 1890s) and in the Gorbals past the Gallowgate in Glasgow's rough southside, once Europe's worst slum. Some say Paddy's Market under the viaducts near the River Clyde is the oldest flea market in Europe.

Some say, the locals would just as soon slit your throat as to give you the time of day. The name alone (Paddy) should give you a clue as to who al lived in the Gorbals. But not one of those kilts would fit him for love or money.

In the Highlands, the whole family traditionally chips in on a chap's 21st birthday to buy him a kilt, and each year, he got another piece of the outfit. By the time he reached the ages of 27 to 30 he was supposed to be kitted out in full Highland dress.

Neil's family is Irish-Scots, so no Scottish tartan is associated with O'Neill. MacNeill, yes. So Neil had to kit himself out in highland dress.

Neil chose the Farquharson tartan because the kilt reminded him of his scout uniform colors. A favorite tartan of Scottish boy scout troops, Farquharson is a Jacobite sept of Clan MacKintosh and Clan Chattan that fought at Culloden Mor, also associated with the Gordons. The Gae Gordons were also our hosts at the Las Vegas Highland Games.

Everything about the kilt is imbued with mystery and meaning. The Farquharson moto is is Fide et Fortitudine (fidelity and fortitude).

The kilt, held up by two buckles and a lot of faith, is a mathematical challenge in plaid. The pleating is either done “to the sett”, repeating the tartan pattern, or regimental, “to the line or stripe." Neil's kilt is sewn to the stripe. All stripes need to match up exactly on the grain. There are 23 to 45 pleats on a kilt, depending on the sett.

Neil's kilt has 48 or 50 "hand deep" 4" pleats, depending on how you count the deeper first pleats on the front and the under apron pleats. It takes six pleats on Neil's kilt to repeat the tartan pattern which is a black watch military pattern with yellow and red stripes—for the colors of the royal rampant lion flag of Scotland?

There are two types of pleats: knife pleats and the more complex box pleats. Luckily Neil's kilt has the simple knife pleat. What you see of the tartan is like the edges of a deck of cards fanned out on the casino table by an expert blackjack dealer.

In other words, most of the kilt is hidden in the folds of the pleats. When the thread begins to rot on a kilt, you don't send it out to the draper or dressmaker, it has to be remade by a specialized kiltmaker, and the repair cost can run more than buying a new kilt at £5-600.

No matter how you cut it, miles and miles of thread and a lot of hand stitching goes into making a kilt. A simple overcast seamless stitch won't do, it has to be the invisible stitch, double-knotted every few stitches so it won't unravel under the pendulous weight of the pleats.

Now I know it's some sort of a hellacious Calvinist sin to use a sewing machine on a kilt but it's stronger than my hand stitching. You're not supposed to pierce the yarn, but sew between the yarns. And the buckle leather does need a sewing machine's special touch.

The old 1929 Singer of mine had the gumption to sew through most of the triple thickness of the tartan. But the motor strained and moaned like a constipated caber tosser.

No matter how hard I held onto the pinned kilt, the material shifted when the pressure foot gripped the wool, throwing off the stripe so it was no longer on the grain, so I still had to massage it back into place by hand. So much for modern shortcuts.

Not much holds the kilt up to begin with, so every stitch counts. Safety pins help too. We were running late for our plane when Neil announced his kilt was falling apart.

Enroute to the airport, he hastily pulled on a pair of shorts, and stripped off the kilt, while I hurriedly massaged his kilt together with a few crucial stitches and some well-placed safety pins. At the airport, he rolled it up and stuffed it into his suitcase and we were on our way to the Las Vegas Games.

My quick handiwork held up and got us through a hectic weekend of Highland Games without a single mishap.

But not through airport security on the way home. Again, we were running late. To save time, he decided not to change and to wear the kilt to the airport. We left directly from a performance and there was little time to spare before our flight took off for Oakland.

Needless to say, when we went through security, bells and whistles and alarms went off everywhere.

Neil stepped into the plexiglas booth and took off every bit of metal he could find. he took off his sporran, the kilt brooch from the apron and every safety pin he could find. Even his sock flashers. Still, the kilt triggered the electronic sensors.

It was a real showstopper. Passengers stood transfixed, waiting to see what would happen next. It began to look like the kilt would have to stay in Vegas.

By this point, Neil was so frustrated that he began to unbuckle the kilt to hand the damned thing over to the guard. The guard stopped him, saying, "Sir, please do not remove it. Do NOT remove it." Neil had on plaid knickers but the TSA airport security guard didn't even want to go there. He even threatened arrest if Neil did disrobe.

The guard frowned and waved his wand. He frowned some more. Adjusted the setting. Waved and frowned for what seemed an eternity. More TSA guards joined him, observing his technique. The final boarding call had just been announced and there wasn't another plane til the next day.

Now, Neil has tiny metal plates in his face from an old car accident. So the wand beeped crazily around his head too. The TSA guard shook his head in double consternation but eventually he let Neil go. Good think Neil didn't have on his skian dubh.

Neil had to run the entire length of the Las Vegas airport concourse with all nine yards of his kilt flapping dangerously behind like a laden scald crow on a battlefield.

I was yelling, "Run, Forrest, run!"

Passengers sniggered and parted as he chugged down the ramps. He got an ovation when he boarded the plane, all wild-eyed and out of breath. He was the only man in a kilt on that flight. Everyone else was already dressed down in their skivvies. The flight attendants loved it and gave him a drink.

Airport security was not amused by a Scotsman in national dress nor did they want to find out what is worn under the kilt. And that's another whole story.


I found out later that another kilted Highland warrior clansman, dressed in traditional garb also attempted to fly home on an earlier flight. Understand that a traditional kilt is not the same as the rather prudish Victorian kilt we all know and love. The traditional kilt is comprised of a looooong bolt of cloth, and a belt. Nothing more.

You lay your yardage on the ground and pleat it. Then you roll yourself up into it, and cinch it around your waist with a belt, the excess end piece creates a mantle, a shirt and a pouch. And then you hope and pray that everything stays in place.

At various Highland games I've watched full grown men thrashing about on the ground like strange flailing narwhals—getting dressed is tricky at the best of times, and apparently even more so when you're hung over.

Watching the guys from Albannach get dressed the next morning after the night before—was hysterical. I also got a glimpse at a whole lot more than what I bargained for so early on a Sunday morning. Talk about flashing.

OK, back to Las Vegas Airport: the TSA agent insisted that the Living History re-enactor—who also happens to be a genuine Scottish Laird, to remove his belt. That's what the manual says to do. Right? The laird tried to explain what would happen if he did so, but the guard would have none of it.

So the laird removed the belt. As the kilt fell to the ground, he rotated in the glass booth with arms spread wide—to show the entire airport what was worn under the kilt. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

No wonder the TSA guard wouldn't let Neil remove his kilt. He'd already been flashed.

Badgering the Dog

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