An article by Matthew Newsome of the Scottish Tartans Authority and Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC, USA. Remember it's an american firm in
america, and so don't mistake it for a museum actually situated in Scotland. Can't figure out how they can call themselves THE Scottish Tartans Authority, very misleading. http://www.scottishtartans.org/
So here it is, coming at you, LoTek style. ...
Did the Early Belted Plaid Have A Drawstring?
by Matthew Newsome.
The belted plaid (feilidh-mór or breacan-feile in Gaelic) can be described as the "grandfather" of our modern tailored kilt. It is the earliest form of kilted garment worn in the Highlands of Scotland that we are aware of, and its use can be documented back to 1594.
The modern kilt is a tailored, skirt-like garment that reaches from the waist to the knee, with pleats sewn into the back. The "father" of this tailored kilt is the philabeg (feilidh-beag, or "small wrap") which was a length of cloth some 25" to 30" wide and four yards long, gathered into pleats or folds, and belted securely around the waist.
The father of the philabeg, and so the grandfather of the modern kilt, would then be the feilidh ("wrap") or, as it later came to be known, the feilidh-mór ("large wrap"). Like the philabeg, this garment was also untailored. It consisted of basically two lengths of cloth, each 25" to 30" wide and about four yards long, stitched to each other along one of the long ends, to create a plaid (blanket) that was 50" to 60" wide and about four yards in length (this seems to be the average, though exact lengths doubtlessly varied somewhat). It, too, was gathered into pleats or folds and belted securely at the waist. The upper part was then draped and arranged around the shoulders and upper body to suit the wearer.
To don the belted plaid, the wearer must somehow get this some 12 feet of cloth reduced down to something about 1.5 times his waist size. Typically, re-enactors today do this by lying the tartan on the ground and manually arranging the pleats, then lying down upon it, wrapping it around themselves, and belting it on. For a more detailed description of how this is done, see my book, Early Highland Dress.
People have long objected that this is too cumbersome a process for a simple shepherd, or a soldier, to get dressed. They especially object to the idea of laying down upon the often wet and muddy ground to get dressed. Of course, it is possible to don the plaid while standing. But the gathering must be done in the hand, and the upper part of the plaid must then be held in place at the shoulder (by other people, or if alone, by holding it between under your chin), the belt fastened, and then the lower part tugged around front until the desired look is achieved. While this avoids the problem of lying on the ground, it certainly is no less cumbersome a process!
Part of the problem is that no one ever wrote down exactly how they donned their plaids. All we have surviving for us are portraits depicting the Highlanders in their garb, showing what the end result looks like. We can think of different ways the plaid may have been put on that would achieve the desired results, and judge the methods according to that criteria, but it is impossible to say, with any accuracy, which method may or may not have been historically correct.
Different people have offered different solutions to this problem. Some say that the Highlanders simply didn't take their plaids off that often. Since they were wearing them days at a time, it didn't matter as much that they were cumbersome to put on. Not everyone agrees this was true, however. I have always been of the opinion that it only seems cumbersome to us because we don't have anything remotely similar in our modern western dress to compare it to. Some people have gone so far as to say that the pleats were sewn into the belted plaid, like they are in the modern kilt, but this does not hold up to historical scrutiny. For one, part of the purpose of the belted plaid was that it could be used unbelted, as well, as a plaid (Gaelic for "blanket") for sleeping in and other uses. Stitching in the pleats would remove this functionality. Secondly, no surviving examples of such a tailored plaid survive for us.
We know that the pleats were not stitched into the feilidh-beag until the 1790s. And it is no surprise that the earliest surviving tailored kilts we have are from the 1790s and early 1800s. Why don't we have any surviving examples of untailored philabegs or belted plaids? The answer is because they were untailored. What do you do with an old length of cloth once it has become threadbare and no longer suitable for clothing? You cut it up and use it for scraps or rags. Or if parts of it are still useable, you make it into something else. If the pleats were indeed ever sewn into the belted plaid, you would no longer have a multi-functional length of cloth, but rather a tailored garment, and if this practice were widespread we would expect that at least some of these tailored garments would have survived for us.
One very practical solution to donning the belted plaid has recently come to the attention of Highland dress historians. In the collection of the Scottish Tartans Society is a belted plaid that was worn by Sir John Murray MacGregor of MacGregor on the occasion of King George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. This plaid has small loops sewn into the inside waistline, at the rate of one loop for every repeat of the tartan pattern. (Note: According to an article written by Jamie Scarlett, the loops were sewn to the inside. According to conversation with Bob Martin, the loops are on the outside.) A cord was threaded through these loops, like a drawstring. The loops are then slid together along the cord, the cord is tied at the waist, the front aprons of the plaid are arranged, and an outer belt is put on the secure the whole thing. Viola! An easy and simple way to don the belted plaid.
But this garment was worn in 1822 -- well after the belted plaid ceased to be worn as anything more than a ceremonial garment by certain traditionally minded individuals. Were the drawstring loops a recent innovation, or was there any basis for this in antiquity? The answer to this question was first suggested to me by kilt maker and kilt historian Bob Martin, who has the advantage of not only being a student of Highland dress, but an expert artist and painter as well. Combining both skills, he has a knack for seeing small, but important details in old portraits of people wearing Highland dress that others are likely to miss.
Such an important detail was found in a portrait of Lord Mungo Murray (often called simply, "Highland Chieftain") by John Michael Wright. Wright lived from 1617-1694, and different resources give the date of this particular painting as anywhere from 1660-1680. Pictured at the top of this article, it is the earliest depiction of tartan in a major portrait. It now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. But one thing about it that has always struck Bob Martin as odd was what appeared to be a twisted cord of some type tied around the figure's waist, seemingly with no purpose (see the detail at right). What was this cord tied to? What was it used for?
When Bob had the opportunity to examine the MacGregor belted plaid from 1822, however, he had his answer. This cord could be nothing other than a drawstring in the belted plaid. It fit the bill perfectly! Here we have pictured, in the seventeenth century, a plaid worn secured by a drawstring on the inside, and a belt on the outside. This is certainly evidence suggesting the early usage of such an aid in donning the belted plaid.
Keep in mind that the earliest documented instance we have of the belted plaid being worn is from 1594. This portrait was painted between 1660-1680. Mungo Murray was the fifth son of the second Earl of Atholl. It is uncertain how old he is in this picture, but it is said that he "died young" around the year 1700, which certainly speaks to his being a young man when this portrait was commissioned. So we can assume that he belonged to about the third generation of Highlanders wearing the belted plaid.
It is unlikely that Mungo Murray in the seventeenth century, and John Murray MacGregor, in the nineteenth century, each independently had the same novel idea about adding a drawstring to their plaids. More likely this is a tradition that had been around since at least the seventeenth century, and though it may not have ever been in universal use, it was common enough to continue right on into the nineteenth century and the end of the "belted plaid era." The reason it has been a "secret" in more modern times is most likely due to the fact that it is invisible when worn, and so not likely to show up in most portraits, and easily removed when the plaid's function has been outlived, and so no physical record would remain.
For those seeking a more convenient and plausible method of donning the belted plaid, the drawstring is one choice that is grounded in historic tradition. (Bob Martin now offers as part of his kilt making service the sewing of small loops into the inside waist of the plaid, at the interval of one per repeat of the sett, as in the case with the MacGregor plaid, and uses parachute cord as a drawstring).
As an interesting side note on the Mungo Murray portrait, as I stated above, it is considered the earliest depiction of tartan Highland dress in a major portrait. In 1994, Alasdair MacLeod, of Edinburgh, did a study of the painting, in which he extrapolated a thread count for the tartan being worn. That thread count is given below. To reproduce the cloth as shown in the painting, it should be woven with a broad black selvage of about 100 threads.
T20, Y8, K4, Y4, K4, Y4, K4, Y8, S2, Y4, S2, Y8, K8, Y6, S14, Y6, S14, Y2, K2, Y2, SR14, Y2, K2, Y2, S14, Y2, K2, Y2, S14, Y6, S14, Y6, K8, Y8, K4, Y4, K4, Y8, K8, Y12, K4, Y12, K4, Y12, K4, Y12, K4, Y12, K4, Y12, K20, Y8, T2, W4, T2, Y4, T2, W4, T2, Y8, K12, Y2, W4
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