Why the art of kilt-making is looming back into view

Rachel Hammerton with a selection of kilts infront of the 1920s Armstrong Loom
Rachel Hammerton with a selection of kilts infront of the 1920s Armstrong Loom

As recently as a few years ago, it was feared that kilt-making was in crisis. A Sunday Herald story even estimated that “there are perhaps as few as 10 authentic kilt-makers in Scotland”.

But two of those specialists are now based in the Borders, and are planning to make kiltmaking a popular pastime again.

Kilt Making at Mount Pleasant

Kilt Making at Mount Pleasant

Border Kilt Craft, the brainchild of Rachel Hammerton, opened recently at Mount Pleasant, near Duns.

In her workshop, Rachel plans to offer kiltmaking courses to those interested – and she stresses that no previous experience is required.

“There is no need to be good at knitting or sewing or anything like that,” Rachel said.

“In fact, working on the loom that we have, it’s a lot more like engineering, but with soft materials. Anybody can do it, it’s not feminine at all.”

Master kilt maker Ann Campbell with 'Vestiarium Scoticum'

Master kilt maker Ann Campbell with 'Vestiarium Scoticum'

Director Rachel has made more than 100 kilts as a professionally trained and qualified kilt-maker.

She has given presentations on the history of Scottish kilts in Italy, the USA and the Czech Republic. As a spinner and weaver, she continues to research her passion, the history and techniques of textile production.

Rachel said: “Our interest in the study and research of the kilt, our wish to preserve a dying traditional craft, and our qualifications and experience in training have inspired us to design a course in traditional kilt-making, the only one of its kind in southern Scotland.”

The unique nature of the workshop is evident when you see the loom that Rachel uses, which was thought to have been built nearly 200 years ago.

“Our Armstrong loom is our most prized possession,” says Rachel.

“We believe that it first saw the light of day back in the 1820s when it was installed as the very latest technology at the Alva Mill near Stirling. There have been a couple of additions, but very few. It’s basically just tree trunks, still, although some of the frames are metal, which were added in, I think, the 1970s, and there are a couple of heavy iron parts which must have been bolted on in the late nineteenth century.”

The Armstrong loom made the journey south to the Borders with Rachel after her husband retired last year.

“It was taken down and put up together again in my workshop, which is amazing,” she says, “given that it has only been moved three times in its life. We were very lucky as well because it was inherited by the great-grandson of the man who originally owned it, and he gave it to us because he wanted it to be used.

“Another thing we’ve been lucky to get are all these shuttles,” she went on, “because with the way they bang about pulling the yarn across the machine, they get really battered. We were given a load of shuttles as well, which was very handy, because otherwise, with them not being made anymore, we’d have had to go to the third world to find them.

“After more than 100 years on Loch Lomondside,” she said, “the loom has found its way to the Borders and is now installed in our workshop.

“Over the years it has woven many of the Scottish tartans, and we are now in the process of designing the Mount Pleasant Tweed.

“She is known as the Old Lady,” says Rachel of the loom, “and she lets you know just how old she is from time to time. She was obviously cutting edge technology when she was built back then. Using her with the pedals and the frames, it is a bit like a cross between a bicycle and a church organ!”

That hasn’t stopped Rachel from becoming quite dextrous on the loom. “I can get a whole kilt done in about 24 straight hours,” she says. “So that’s about three days’ work, if I’m not interrupted. Of course, back when she was built, people used small children to fetch and carry things, making the process even quicker.”

Potential attendees on the eight lesson course won’t be expected to work as quickly as Rachel, with the idea being that each person takes as long as is necessary to complete each step.

Rachel has been joined in her new venture by her mentor, master kilt-maker Ann Campbell, who has more than 1,000 kilts to her credit. Ann is the Scottish Keeper of the Bergen Scottish tartan, has a Hollywood star among her clientele, and now specialises in her own Campbell tartan.

Ann comes from a piping family, and has trained many of Scotland’s current kilt-makers. She is also the owner of a quite infamous book of tartan.

Back in the 1820s, when a royal visit to the Highlands sparked a mania for tartan, the enterprising Sobieski Stuart brothers produced what they claimed was an ancient catalogue of Scottish clan tartans, ‘Vestiarium Scoticum’

The only thing was that neither the book’s tartan patterns – which were faked – nor the brothers, who had claimed to be descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, were what they claimed.

Ann is now the proud owner of the beautiful fakery, but for Border Kilt Craft the question of authenticity is not important.

“We like working to people’s own designs,” says Rachel. “I made my husband a kilt for his Christmas present, and, really, you look at him in it and you think ‘What’s better than a man in a kilt?’”

l For more information phone 01361 882254 or visit www.borderkiltcraft.net

l To see Rachel at work on the Armstrong loom, visit our website at www.thesouthern