Doing Things the Old-Fashioned Way

People often ask me how long it takes to make a kilt (16-20 hours), and then are completely taken aback when I tell them that it’s all sewn by hand. The idea that we have machines to do everything is so pervasive that we are surprised that anyone actually does ANY kind of work by hand. For kiltmakers, it’s the idea that while a machine can accomplish the task of sewing, only a person can make the tiny decisions and adjustments that make a kilt fit. I am always checking to make sure that the stripes of the tartan match perfectly, and that the pattern looks good both close up and from a distance. I’m frequently checking the back of the work as well, and seeing that everything is where it’s supposed to be.

The same thing happens when my husband is working at his weaving. He does this for pleasure, and is strictly an amateur, but it’s amazing how many of the same principles apply. He is a retired engineer, and naturally approaches problems from an engineering perspective. He has been working at weaving tartan for about 6 months, and it is a real challenge. For those who are not familiar with the process, the threads have to be put on the loom in a certain order. For tartan, there are thread counts (a kind of “recipe”) for each of the thousands of tartans. Right now he is making a kilt length for me of O’Sullivan-Barre tartan. The pattern is complex, with about 275 threads for each sett. There are about 1100 threads in the width he’s making at 36 threads to the inch. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but the finished fabric is beautiful, and it’s amazing to see it come out as he weaves.

Now for the real subject of this post: the old-fashioned way of weaving tartan and using the thread count “recipe” seems to be closely related to some of the techniques for sewing the pleats of a kilt. The traditional method for giving directions about how to make the tartan patterns involves giving the width of each different-colored stripe in eighths of an inch. In this way, a tartan that had a series of 1/8th -inch stripes would say 1 black, 1 red, 1 black meaning 1/8 inch of each, or about 4-6 threads, depending on the thickness of the yarn. One inch would be expressed as 8, meaning 8 eighths, and so on. When I measure pleats, the measurement is also expressed in eighths of an inch. Pleats might be 7 at the bottom, and 5 at the top, or 7/8 and 5/8 respectively. Frequently the pleats come out “in between”, and so end up being written down as “6 1/2”, which means 6/8 plus one half of an eighth (1/16), for a total of 13/16. At times even the 1/16th of an inch won’t get me the exact width I need, so I have to resort to 6 1/2 + (one extra thread above 13/16) or 6 1/2 – (one less thread). It all seems daunting, but it really does simplify things in the end. As many of you know, I am a teacher, and when kids ask if they really need to know about fractions (“Are we ever going to use this?” or “Do we really need to know this?” they ask) my answer is a resounding YES. I deal with fractions every day, and it really is important. The old methods that I have described still work, and actually make my work easier. No machine can do what I do with my hands and my head, which is a comforting thought.

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