Remaking The Family Kilt by Todd R. Nelson
This is a story written by one of our customers about their kilt and the remaking of it. It was wrote by Todd R. Nelson
Ariel drops off my kilt for refitting.
After forty-two years, it was time for my kilt to pass to the next generation. In doing so, I learned a bit more about it, retrofitting memories as well as a garment.
My kilt memory begins in the spring of 1977. While studying at Stirling University in Scotland, I ordered a bespoke kilt in our family tartan: Gunn. The kiltmaker also had a used tweed jacket and waistcoat with deer horn buttons in the shop. “Colin Campbell” was stitched inside, and it was a bargain at only 25 pounds sterling. Built to last—and, to my benefit, not passed down in Colin’s family.
I wore my highland garb to get married that June, and on numerous other occasions in the next 42 years—weddings, graduations, Robert Burns Suppers, a few funerals, clan gatherings, and pipe band competitions. Though fit for many more years of service, it would need alteration if it was to be passed along to my son. A kilt forgives a certain amount of added girth, however, adjustment would be required for a son who had his father’s former svelt figure. It would restore the kilt to proud use.
Therefore, I sent my kilt to Edinburgh via family courier for tailoring. My daughter, Ariel, dropped it off last May at The Kiltmakery in Leith.
Amanda Moffett immediately identified its maker: Geoffrey Taylor of the Royal Mile, one of the main kilt makers in Edinburgh, she said.
“We can tell by the stitching,” said Amanda, of the secrets known but to a fellow kilt maker. “Sometimes they even sign on the inside. There are only a few different authentic kilt-making houses.” She rattled off the names from Inverness to Glasgow to Edinburgh.
Mine was well made. “It can be heartbreaking when you get a poor-quality kilt that needs alteration. The customer thinks they have a full eight-yard kilt, but it turns out to be only five,” Amanda said. “We’ll unstitch it completely and sew it up again from scratch. And it’ll take far more work than would sewing a new kilt.”
Mine indeed had eight yards of tartan, with deep pleats, and plenty to work with. It would be entirely dismantled, resewn, repleated, pressed, new belts and buckles added, and ready for wear by the next Nelson generation. “Kilts should be used and reused,” Amanda said.
Ariel shared my kilt’s story with a few photos of our wedding day, explained our Scottish origins, my bagpiping, the other kilts in the family, and her own interest in learning the craft.
I do have a newer one, purchased “off the rack” from a kilt hire shop on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. It fits fine. Exact tartan: Gunn. And it too was made by Geoffrey Tailor. Imagine that.
A kilts tells a story: my family story, my four pipe-band story, my journey, our journey. How many garments weave together ancient tradition and clan and unique family history unto the second and third generation? Get passed down along hereditary lines? The fabrics themselves—tartan associated with a clan, locale, or pipe band—are fealty to tradition, name, and identity.
My great great grandparents, Alexander and Jeannie Nelson, had come to America from Glasgow in 1867. But in 2011, the psychic journey from the East End across town to the University of Glasgow for Ariel’s graduation from art school was as far as the ancestral journey by ship to America. When I wore the kilt to her graduation, I was channeling this family story. Alexander could never have afforded a kilt, much less aspire to university.
Nor could the Glasgow Nelsons have imagined something called Social Media. Ariel chronicled the kilt drop off in Leith on Facebook.
How did the kilt make it home to Maine? Through a series of unplanned but very fortunate events, I found myself in Edinburgh with Ariel at the end of August—on the exact day that Amanda, unbeknownst to me, had finished her work and sought information for shipping. “Can you text me your phone number and address? We’re ready to send it off!”
I was loathe to leave this important accomplishment to Fedex. I would personally carry my kilt home. The next morning, we arrived at The Kiltmakery in person, met Amanda and Nikki, saw other amazing works in progress, and took photos. I sent Spencer a photo. He texted back: “I’m a bit tearful.” Me too.
Now my new-old kilt has been passed to a new generation. And inside, it’s been signed by the kilt remaker: “Remade by Amanda Moffett, Edinburgh, 2019.” It’s ready for the next 42 years.
Todd R. Nelson hangs his kilt in Penobscot. Ariel R. Nelson, MFA, lives in Aberdeen.