It’s true that the history of the kilt is a long one. Irish kilts may or may not have been around for centuries. Scottish kilts certainly were. Registered family patterns date back years and years. However, while the historical past is interesting, do you know the why behind the wearing or the kilt?
Kilts were similar to robes. Woven from wool, they would be worn as the daily dress. As wool became more available, the size of the kilts became larger, birthing the Great Kilt. The Great Kilt was worn pleated and belted or tossed over the shoulder. It’s the most popular style you’ll see depicted at renaissance faires.
As we consider that the kilt probably originated in Scotland, you’ll know the climate was chilly, rainy, mountainous, and often unpredictable. By the way, who tended all those sheep that produced the wool for the kilts? Scottish shepherds needed a garment that could withstand all the elements. It had to be warm and allow for ease of movement. The style needed to allow for crossing streams and wandering throughout the country side.
Wool is considered one of the best natural materials for the outdoor elements. Sheep’s coats include natural oils to protect them from the weather. Further, there is a theory called compression many outdoor fanatics are familiar with. When cotton becomes wet, it squishes together and compresses, making it useless while saturated.
Kilt wool (as well as other synthetics, but, hey, this is a kilt lesson) maintain their loft, or stay expanded. The little pockets, despite being wet, fill with body heat to keep the wearer warm. Cold weather at night is not as much of an issue if you’re wearing a fabric that keeps you warm while wet. The kilt made of wool was the perfect solution to cold, wet weather. Shoot, it was perfect for all the elements, really.
To make the kilt even more durable, it was coated with rendered goose fat. The fat further helped to repel water from the kilt. It may have made the fabric more durable, as well. What we’d like to know is how it smelled, draped over a stinky man, traipsing through the hills, after a few days or so?
The why of the kilt served a second purpose. When we mention the Great Kilt, think about how much fabric it used. Countrymen, the most prolific kilt wearers, could use their kilt as a sleeping mat or a blanket. During travel, as they trekked through streams, rain and chill, the wool kilt kept them warm, then served as a place to sleep at night.
As for the walking kilt, which was much shorter, typically just above the knees, similar tactics apply. The walking kilt was necessary for more active pursuits, like tree cutting … or, perhaps, walking. It was developed to accommodate a more active lifestyle than shepherding. You can read the history of kilts for historical specifics.
There is one more why of kilts. Remember we discussed kilt tartans? We took a minute to consider the history of family crests, too. The tartan acted as a pattern specific to a family or clan. In the event of a mishap, the kilt tartan could help to identify where the person came from, er, which region and, hopefully, which family. In lieu of dog tags or licenses, the kilt was worn as an identity finder.
See? When you travel to Ireland, based on modern day luxuries like hot water, you may think the kilt was merely a cultural show piece. In fact, for the men who wore them every day, traipsing through mountains, it kept them warm, dry and helped others recognize their family origins. Maybe that’s why the Scottish army didn’t mind wearing them even after being nicknamed ‘Ladies from Hell’?