How to make a Kilt

Making a kilt

Extracted from postings to highland-dance, the highland and scottish step dance mailing list. See

A Kilt is basically a pleated, wrapped skirt. The back half of the kilt is pleated, the front half (apron) is the made of two overlapping panels. A true kilt is completely handmade. There are some small variations in my version, which I have added for ease of wear, such as adding Velcro across the front of the apron. The expression “The Whole Nine Yards” comes from the fact that a large man’s kilt is made of a nine-yard long piece of tartan material*a>. Since high quality tartan costs $55 or more per 60-inch wide yard (yielding 2 yards of kilt material) you can see why a kilt is a lifetime investment. Kilt layout

Why does a kilt need so much material?

A single pleat is made up of a full sett (pattern) width, with an average one-inch exposed pleat. The pleating can be done “to the sett”, duplicating the pattern, or regimental “to the stripe”. If the size of the sett were 8 inches, one pleat would use 9 inches. 42-inch hip measurement requires 4 yards of double-width tartan.

21 inches of apron x 2 42 inches
21 inches of pleating x 9 inches (8 inch sett + 1 inch exposed pleat) 189 inches
Total 231 inches
add 20% for additional pleating and centering the apron pattern. 46 inches
Total Inches needed 277 inches
Divide by 72 (36×2 double width) 3.86 yards – rounds to 4 yards.

Less material is needed if the sett is smaller. A 6-inch sett would equal 3.15 yards. A larger man with 56-inch hip or waist measurement would require just over 5 yards of 8-inch sett tartan.

A child or dancer’s kilt would look best if made with a 6-inch or smaller sett, keeping the pattern in proportion to the size of the wearer. A kilt for a child with a waist measurement of 26 inches, using tartan with a 6-inch sett could be made with 2 to 2 ½ yards of tartan.

Measurements Needed: Hip, Waist, and Kilt Length

Hip and waist meaurements determine the pleating needed. The length of the kilt is measured from waist to mid-knee, adding 2 inches for a higher rise (waist) if a wide kilt belt is to be worn.

Fitting hint: Pre-make the lining by cutting 1 yard of heavy duck fabric into 10-inch widths. Wrap one section around the back of the person being fit, stopping at the side seams of the person’s apparel. Attach a section at this side seam on both the left and right side, wrapping around the front until each piece meets the opposite seam. Safety pin these pieces together, pinning back the ends of the apron sections. You have now custom fitted the lining to be used later. You can fit the pleats and the aprons to this lining as you are making the kilt. Any increases or decreases in waist compared to hip can be easily determined by how the back piece is fastened to the apron sections.

Preparing the Material

The material True tartan material has a finished selvage edge, which would be used as the bottom (hem) of the kilt. If the material doesn’t have a finished edge you should start by hemming the material at both top and bottom edge making sure you hem at the same place on both sides so that when you sew them together (end to end) the pattern and depth of the hems match. Cut material into two strips wide enough to measure from waist to bottom of the hem. This will leave a long center strip that will be partially used for the waistband. Sew the two wide hemmed pieces together, matching the pattern of the sett. Finish the top edge of the material by serging, running a zigzag stitch, or using an anti-fraying liquid like Fray Stop or Fray Check.

Marking the Outside Apron

The outside kilt apron will buckle on the right side. The pattern of the tartan needs to be centered properly. Fold under at least 6 inches at the beginning, and then make a deep, double-width pleat on the left. Fasten with a safety pin at the hip measurement.

Continue pleating with single-width pleats, (see Pleating the Kilt below), continuing to safety pin at the hip. Pin in a wide, double sett width box pleat at the opposite end of the pleating. Next measure the inside apron to match the outside apron, and pin back the end.

Pleating the Kilt

Pleating Think of a deck of cards, which have been fanned out. Many cards overlap with only a narrow part of each card exposed. Each hidden part of the card represents 8 inches of fabric doubled for the pleat. The exposed part would be aprox. 5/8 to 1 inch. Mark one sett width on a piece of cardboard. Divide the pattern of the sett into equal parts. A section of two wide strips of color with a narrow stripe in the middle looks best divided in 3 sections, centering the strip in the middle section. An 8-inch sett may be divided in 8 or more sections. This piece of cardboard can be your measuring tool as you pleat.

To duplicate the pattern of the tartan you overlay the edge of the pleat over the matching pattern in the next sett. Fasten each pleat at hip level with a safety pin. Continue pleating until the desired width is pleated.

Hip to Waist Adjustments

Darts can be pinched in at each side of the apron pieces, keeping the first and last pleats straight on grain. This will adjust the apron for one of the half waist/hip difference. The remaining half of the difference should be spread equally between the pleats, using safety pins. You may want to mark the angles of the pleat adjustment, with a temporary fabric marker, where needed to ensure a straight stitch.

Basting In the Pleats

Do 2 rows of basting, approximately ¼ and ½ of the way up from the bottom edge of the fabric. You can use a running stitch, catching the edge of each pleat. This will make the material more compact and easy to work with during sewing, as well as making steam pressing easier.

Stitching the Pleats

Use a blind (felling) stitch, starting at the bottom (hip point) of the pleat. Fasten the thread ½ inch from the reverse edge of the pleat, start with 2 stitches to fasten the bottom, and then run the needle under 3 threads of the bottom material, and then straight up to the top material of the pleat. You then run the needle through the top material aprox. 3 threads, back down to the bottom. This produces aprox. 10 stitches per inch.

Trimming the Back of the Pleats

Trimming pleats On the inside of the kilt trim excess material at top of each pleat, from waist to 1 inch above the hipline. This strip would be 1 ½ to 2 inches deep, removing the bulk of the material from the inside.

Adding Fringe

Cut a 3 inch wide piece of material the length of the kilt. Fold this piece in half to give a double thickness to the fringe. This will be sewn into a doubled (Z – shaped) edge folded in the right side of the apron. Once this is sewn in place you can fringe it by removing the vertical threads.

Adding the Waistband

Cut a 5 inch wide strip for the waistband. Starting on the beginning edge of the outside apron matching the pattern of the material. Turn the bottom edge of the waistband strip under. ½ inch and stitch 1 to 1 ½ inches from the top edge of the apron using the blind (felling) stitch. Overlap the remaining width over the top of the kilt. The lining will cover up this side so it doesn’t need to be finished.

Adding the Lining

Stitch in the lining of duck material at the top of the inside waistband by doing an overlap stitch along the top and inside apron side, tacking bottom edge of the middle section to the back of the pleats. The lining should be the depth of the sewn down pleat. The bottoms of the apron lining should be left loose, just hemming the turned under edge of the lining to itself.

Adding Buckles and Leather Straps

Punch a series of holes in the squared end of the leather straps. Sew the straps to the inside of the next to the fringe, positioning the top strap just below the waistband, and the second just above the bottom of the sewn down pleat. Tack the lining over the sewn-in straps. Sew the buckles on the pleated area, 2 inches to the right of the fringed side of the apron.

The buckles can be attached by either sewing on a turned strip of material as a casing, or by sewing the buckle directly on the material using button thread.

Add Velcro to the Inside Waistband

Instead of adding a third buckle / strap to the left side I use Velcro across the apron. This holds the material securely with or without a belt.


Press the pleats using a wet pressing cloth. Hold the iron over a section of pleating to steam in the pleat. Move the hot iron to the next section and lay a cold iron or heavy object on the previous area. This holds in the steam while it cools, giving you a crisp pleat that has real staying power.

Additional Hints

  • Use quilter’s safety pins. They are bent so the fabric is not distorted when you push them through.
  • Use quilter’s thread. It’s a good, strong thread that is doesn’t kink and tangle like regular thread.
  • Use anti-fraying liquid on raw edges such as the top edge of the kilt. Watch the weight of your tartan, wool or wool blend. Dancers kilts use 10 oz. Tartan wool. A man’s kilt uses 13 oz, or, preferably, 16 oz. tartan, which doesn’t crush and holds the pleats like iron.
  • For an inexpensive, “knockaround” kilt you can use wool blend plaids, but select the largest pattern or expect to pleat by two widths of the repeated sett. Also double the material in the inside and outside apron to give it additional weight (or have a very heavy kilt pin).
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1 Response to How to make a Kilt

  1. David says:

    What an well written post, If you would like to do some ghost writing for my site please get in touch.

    Kind Regards,


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