Born in Scotland Stitched in America

A modern-day twist on the centuries-old kilt comes to Heber Valley

If you’re one of the brave men and women who regularly don this delightful article of clothing, then you may have heard the saying, “It takes a real man to wear a kilt.” It’s a phrase often spoken — in a comical attempt at sounding Scottish — in our home every time our son wears his kilt — which is pretty much every day! In 2019 we adopted a new saying, one that jumped out from the tag on a newly acquired Commando Kilt from Sport kilt. “A man in a kilt is a man and a half!”

My son’s obsession with kilts began years ago — before we’d met James Ansite or heard of his amazing kilt shop. Unable to find an affordable kilt for my highland adventurer to romp around in, we settled on seven yards of a bright orange flannel plaid material and constructed our version of the Grand Kilt — it was awesome! He lived in that thing. We eventually forked out some dollars for a very nice traditional wool kilt for special occasions (only he wore that as often as he could too). Then one glorious day, we heard that a kilt shop had recently landed practically in our back yard — our happy camper was overjoyed. I, on the other hand, was nervous that my son would now feel inclined to sell a kidney on the black market to support his habit. Our first visit to Sport Kilt alleviated my worries — the kilts are amazing, well made, and affordable, and — the best part — my son discovered a friend with whom he shared many interests.

James Ansite was 17 when his kilt adventure began, “I wanted a kilt real bad, so my dad and I made one together. This was back in 1996, and there were no kilt companies with websites; I didn’t know the first place to start. We pulled out the ping-pong table from the garage, laid out the fabric, and used my grandma’s sewing machine.” James’ couldn’t have known his life was about to change — he was just thrilled to be wearing his homemade kilt.

“I was wearing it around as a teenager, and all my friends thought it was really cool and wanted one too. So we made a few for my friends. We were all racing bikes at the time and would use the kilts to change out of our bike shorts after a race. The cycling community really took after it, and our kilts became one of the best selling products in VeloNews, which was a cycling catalog back in the late ‘90s.”

James also discovered the Highland Games scene and set up shop along the West Coast during the events. He explains, “It was a perfect fit for the Highland Games community because they needed kilts that were a lighter weight that they could compete in, that didn’t take months to get, and wasn’t as expensive as a $500 kilt made in Scotland.” While all this was going on they started the first website for Kilts, Sportkilt.com. “. . . and here we are twenty-five years later,” James laughs.

For the past twenty-five years, James has enjoyed creating everything from the Great Kilt to the modern kilt to his latest evolution — the hiking kilt — for Men, Women, and Children. Sport Kilt features 70 different tartans, some traditional, others designed by James, and a spattering of custom plaids. If you can imagine it, Sport Kilt can create it! “We’ve reproduced some of the oldest Scottish family tartans like the Wallace and McDonald. We’ve also designed tartans for states and counties, teams, clubs, families, and various individuals who want something to represent their heritage or just to be different. We created a tartan for the city of Long Beach, CA, and had it approved by the city council and registered in Scotland. With modern-day tartans, the colors can represent whatever you want. For Long Beach, we used blue for the aquatic capital of the US and gold for the 49ers; we had the plaid woven and made into kilts. I’d like to design one for Wasatch and Summit Counties — it would be neat to design now that we are here. Utah has its own tartan, which would be neat to get. We have California, Hawaii, and Nevada. It’s fun to do regional tartans.”

When it comes to picking a tartan, if you don’t already have your own, James’ advice is, “If you don’t have any Scottish ancestry, just pick a tartan that calls out to you. No one’s going to be offended if you’re wearing their tartan. I’ve worn all seventy tartans that we carry, and I’ve never had a Gordon come up to me and say, ‘hey, you better be a Gordon’; if anything, they are flattered that you like their tartan.” If you’re feeling creative, you can always work with James on designing your unique pattern or purchase material and send it his way. He explains, “We try to order in bulk to keep the price around $69. When we add a new tartan, we like to be fairly certain that we can sell at least 100 kilts in that tartan. So we are looking for tartans that have mass appeal. People can also send us their own material. We need about five yards to build a custom kilt; we can do pockets, belt loops, whatever they want. People send us wild material all the time; animal prints, sports teams, comic book characters, you name it. That is our niche here —providing kilts that are good quality and a lot of fun!”

Speaking of fun, James has taken the traditional, modern-day kilt, as we’ve come to know it, and added a creative twist. Breaking away from the traditional wool and belt, Sport Kilts are made with their custom brand of cloth, and you can order them with belt loops or — wait for it — Velcro! I know, amazing, right? James explains, “Our flagship material is an eight-ounce poly rayon that we have specially made for us. It holds a pleat well, feels like very fine wool, but doesn’t contain any wool, so it’s hypoallergenic and breathable. It’s great for being active.” Taking the kilt along for the ride into the 21st century, James’ latest evolutions of the kilt include his hiking and comfy kilts. “For our hiking kilt, we use microfiber, like board short material, that dries quickly and packs down small. People have worn them in ultra marathons, for fly-fishing, paddle boarding, rafting, surfing, and to hike the Appalachian trails.” According to Sport Kilts website, “Wearing our lounge kilts [Comfy Kilt] is like wearing PJ’s without the hassle of stepping into flannel pants. Made of super-soft 100% cotton flannel, it’s hands-down the most comfortable kilt in the world.”

All of the kilts, except for the Commando Kilt, are made in-house — right here in Heber. When asked why the move to our valley, James replied, “The driving force was for my kids. I wanted them to have more opportunities to get outdoors. Growing up in Southern California, we were lucky to see snow once or twice a year; watching my twins play in the snow this winter was amazing. I want them to experience the seasons and see moose, and deer, and things like that that I didn’t get to do when I was younger. I’m trying to give them a more nature-inspired lifestyle.” James and his family love it here and are grateful for the support they have received from the community; they’re also enjoying getting to know their neighbors. James has particularly enjoyed getting to meet one of his customers, who just happened to live here in our valley. “There’s a cowboy chef in town named Skinner who wears our kilts every day. We talked on the phone when we were in CA, but now that we are here, he’ll pop over in the afternoon, and we’ll shoot the breeze. He’s a great guy and we’ve become good friends.”

I highly recommend ‘popping’ over for a visit too — and don’t forget to ask for a tour of their backroom! Their huge bolts of fabric, oversized cutting tables, sewing machines, sergers, and racks and racks of finished kilts is a sight to see. While 99% of Sport Kilt’s business is done online, they love having people drop by to visit. Although you can just walk in for custom designs, James says it’s best to call first to make sure they’re available. I suggest you call just to listen to the message on their voice mail — it is awesome!

“You can buy a kilt from off the rack, or we can tailor your kilt to fit you specifically. We take your shape and size into account when we build your kilt, so it fits perfectly.” James stated that “. . . talking with our customers is always so fun because they are interested in sharing their heritage and history with us; we learn something new and interesting about Scottish and Celtic history almost every day.” James continues with a bit of pride in his voice, “There are all types of reasons why people want to try a kilt for the first time. Our customers are unique individuals; not everyone can have the guts to wear a kilt — it definitely takes some guts — especially the first time. But, once you realize that everyone wants to talk to you, and people smile when you wear it, you get more comfortable and realize how fun it is. It’s a great conversation starter. People want to ask about the tartan you’re wearing, or your ancestors, where they are from, and it leads to all kinds of great discussions.”

Sport Kilt offers traditional kilts, formal kilt packages that have everything one needs for a black-tie event or wedding, and the basics to get started, which include the original sport kilt, and all the accessories to go with it — sporrans, kilt hose, flashes, and Skean Dhu’s (a small knife worn in the kilt hose, you should look it up it has an impressive history). The great thing about kilts is that you can dress them up or down.

If you like being a little rebellious and have yet to experience wearing a kilt — now’s the time! Whichever kilt you choose, and regardless of how you wear it, there’s no denying that, in James’ words, “There’s something freeing and different about wearing a kilt that people love.”

A short history of the Kilt.

Léine: 12 Century & earlier.
A léine is a simple tunic that was worn long by women and to the knee by men. By the 16th century, people began to show off their wealth by wearing longer, more elaborate leine’s. Of course, no tunic is complete without an accessory, specifically, a large swath of woolen material to wrap yourself with on cold misty mornings. This mantle was called a plaid in Scotland and a brat in Ireland and was very likely made from a checkered cloth or tartan (which literally means checkered); these ‘tartans’ were not associated with any region or family — that wouldn’t happen until the 18th century.

The Great Kilt: 16th to 17th century.

In Scots Gaelic plaid originally meant blanket — at a certain point, people began to gather these plaids into folds and belt them about their waist, throwing the rest of the material up and over their shoulders to be worn in a variety of ways – and walla! The Great Kilt was born! The belted plaid, as it was also called, is still worn today by many celebrating their heritage. Traditionally these magnificent mantles were seven to nine yards long and were used as blankets, tarps, tents, and a myriad of clever things one can do with loads of fabric. But let’s face it, after a while, all that ‘stuff’ can be heavy and tedious to deal with.

Phillabeg: 17th century.

Soon, the top part of the Great Kilt was tossed aside to make room for the ‘Little Kilt’ or Phillabeg, which was basically the lower half of the belted plaid. The phillabeg was not tailored; it was just a shorter length of cloth, gathered loosely into folds, and belted at the waist, and is what most people see in artist renditions during the mid-to-late seventeenth century. The first tailored kilt, and what we now know as the kilt, was first introduced in the 1790s.

And now, to address the myth of the tartan. Historians agree that there were no ‘clan tartans’ or ‘region tartans’ until the end of the 18th century.

The Dress Act of 1746 made the wearing of “the Highland Dress” — including the kilt — illegal. During the Proscription (up until 1782) an exemption was made that allowed the kilt to be worn by the Black Watch regiment — enter the Black Watch tartan. In 1782 the law was repealed, and two years later, the Highland aristocrats set up the Highland Society of Edinburgh, leading to the labeling of tartans with names of towns, districts, and eventually families. In the year 1800, there were approximately 100 ‘named tartans,’ and according to the Scottish Register of Tartans, there are over 4,000 registered tartans today — although only about 500 of them have ever been woven.

Should you ever find yourself in want of wearing a great kilt you can jump on over to sportkilt.com and watch a video of how one would do so.