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Kilts are back, but don’t dare call it a skirt


Andrea Chappell wears a kilt almost every day, but she won’t reveal exactly how many she owns. ‘Oh, god,’ she says. ‘No,  I won’t admit to that! I generally say that the number is fewer than I need but more than my husband knows I have.’

Chappell, 50, is one of the last remaining traditional kiltmakers in the UK. The precise number of professional kiltmakers is unknown, but the charity Heritage Crafts Association thinks it could be as few as 11.

In 2021, it put kiltmaking on its Red List of Endangered Crafts. Three years later, it is still there. 

Chappell started making kilts more than a decade ago. It was, originally and partly, a cure for a shopping problem. Having trained in design at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art, she had been living in London creating exhibitions. Her projects could take up to 18 months, and when she finished one she would buy a kilt to commemorate the job. 

She commissioned them from an Edinburgh kiltmaker for around £400 each. ‘It started with a plain black one,’ she says. ‘Next job, a plain red one. Next job, a denim one. Next job, a yellow one. And on it went, and on it went.’

Chappell wearing her design for a Scottish garden at the 2022 Chelsea Flower Show

Chappell wearing her design for a Scottish garden at the 2022 Chelsea Flower Show

In 2012, Chappell, her husband and two children moved to the Northeast of Scotland. Happily, they lived very near the Keith Kilt and Textile Centre in Moray – one of around six organisations in Scotland teaching kiltmaking. Chappell enrolled. 

‘I thought it would be a cheaper way of continuing my wardrobe if I just made [the kilts] myself.’ (Cheaper, yes, although judging by Chappell’s refusal to count her kilt collection, I’d say that quantity is still an issue.)

Kilt school sounds particularly hard-core. Chappell was taught by Linda Gillies, a master kiltmaker with three decades of experience. You could take a 12-day course where, with the help of Gillies, and for the cost of £600, you finish one kilt.

 But Chappell wanted to get a qualification in ‘traditional kiltmaking’; it took her two years.

Buckles and tartan don’t make it a kilt 

Now she runs a kiltmaking studio, Acme Atelier, has had her designs exhibited at the V&A Dundee and this year was awarded ‘master artisan status’ by the nonprofit Michelangelo Foundation, for her ‘excellence’.

Why is kiltmaking so tricky? Well, says Chappell, if you were making a skirt – ‘even a pleated skirt’ – you would cut out individual pieces of fabric and assemble them using a sewing machine, stitching them together with seams and darts. 

With a kilt, there is no cutting process: ‘You are only ever using a giant rectangle of eight to nine metres of cloth.’ The goal is to fold, pleat and shape that ‘one huge, huge piece’ of fabric into a product that’s about 80cm or 90cm long.

‘So you’re fighting cloth.’ Lots of kiltmakers work predominantly with tartan; Chappell is less prescriptive. She uses tartan, but also deadstock fabrics, denim, silk, vintage tweed and even wool she has spun herself.

Kilt queen Andrea Chappell

Kilt queen Andrea Chappell

To be a good kiltmaker, Chappell says you need to be the ‘three Ps’: patient, precise, pedantic. I’d add painstaking. In traditional kiltmaking, everything – each individual pleat, each single stitch – is sewn by hand.

Chappell uses ‘the shortest and thinnest of needles’ (31.5mm long, 0.69mm in diameter) to get ‘the tiniest of stitches’ (around 3mm each). Ideally, she says, you shouldn’t pick up more than four threads of fabric with every stitch.

A handsewn kilt normally takes 30 hours to finish – as a minimum. Chappell’s require at least double that time: ‘It’s because I make every single part.’ She cuts the leather straps by hand, prints and paints the linings herself and tailors the pleat styles to each customer. 

The most common type of kilt pleat, if you wondered, is a knife pleat. But there are also military roll pleats, box pleats, double box pleats, Kingussie pleats – all of which demand different ways of setting out the fabric.

‘It gets to ridiculous detail levels, but that’s part and parcel of the way I like to do it. That’s what people buy into.’

And people really do buy into it. Chappell makes around 50 kilts a year and has a six-month waiting list. She and apprentice Emma Wyatt work on four jobs at a time, alternating between items throughout the day. 

The pair get so attached to their creations, they give them nicknames. One recent kilt, in a floral fabric, was known as Blossom. ‘I regularly say to clients, when a kilt has been shipped, “Now, you must tell me as soon as it arrives because this is like me and my children – I’ll worry about it until it gets home.”’

Chappell’s kilts start at £575 but can cost much more depending on the fabric and levels of customisation. Some requests are personal. A recent buyer asked for a kilt in memory of her Irish aunt. 

Chappell used a rainbow-flecked yarn from Donegal and embroidered the aunt’s last words into the lining: ‘It’s been fun’. Others are, frankly, bonkers.

 One male customer was ‘mad on Bjorn Borg’ and ordered five kilts to represent the five sets that Borg played against John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final. In each lining, Chappell painted the scoreboard, with the customer’s surname in place of McEnroe’s.

Kilts have been worn in the Highlands since the 16th century and became a mark of Scottish identity after the 18th-century Jacobite risings. (Jacobites loved kilts.) But in the past year, the garment has become properly cool. 

On the Gen Z-favourite resale app Depop, searches for kilts are up 52 per cent month on month; last May, rapper A$AP Rocky wore a Gucci kilt to the Met Gala; last month, Claudia Winkleman sported a Brora kilt on  The Traitors and John Lewis has reported a 92 per cent increase in searches compared to last year. 

There’s also, strangely, an Instagram account, Kilted Yogis, which posts pictures of a shirtless, kilt-clad man performing yoga poses in the Scottish countryside. It has 126,000+ followers.

According to Chappell, however, most of these items aren’t kilts – they’re skirts.

The difference is that the kilt construction process – using one giant piece of fabric and sewing by hand – is so specific. ‘So you can stick buckles on it, you can pleat it and it can be tartan – but unless you’ve actually made it as a kilt, it’s not a kilt.’ Sorry, Claudia.

‘I’m not being derogatory as I feel everybody has an accessible price point and I’m painfully aware that most of what I make is not [accessible].’ Chappell just likes to differentiate between ‘what is a craft and what is a fashion garment’. Although, she says, calling a kilt ‘just a skirt’ is about the biggest insult you can give a kiltmaker. 

‘It’s cutting.’

Kilts can be laborious; Chappell often finds herself looking at rows and rows of pleats and thinking, ‘When will it end?’ Still, she loves them. 

‘There is something about all of that swishing. Or the fact you are closeted in them,’ she says. ‘They are joyful to put on.’

Highland fling 

 Visit acmeatelier.co.uk



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