A quick search on the Internet will reveal that there are many kilts available today priced well below $100. Most of these kilts hail from the Indian subcontinent. The region of Sialkot is the manufacturing centre of Pakistan and is home to a fairly large and lucrative Highland Regalia industry. Pakistan has a GDP of less than $2000 and the average worker lives on $5 per day. To compound this, the same average worker's wage typically supports a very large family. It is estimated that at least 500,000 children between the ages of four and fourteen are employed in the Pakistani textile industry. While Pakistan does have laws to prevent child labour and slavery, these are often and easily ignored. Small, nimble hands make quick work and many of these children are forced to work an average of 70 hours per week in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. This deplorable situation creates a moral dilemma for us all: Do we boycott these products to show our disgust or do we buy the products so they can at least earn a meagre wage to support their families? This dilemma is not unique to the Highland Regalia industry, it is found within most other industries as well. Unfortunately in the West we have become accustomed to cheaply produced goods at a cheap price. Those who produce well-made quality items are pushed into an ever-shrinking niche market whose prices suddenly seem too high for the average consumer who regularly purchases goods made in developing countries.
Many of these companies will claim that 80% of their exports are to the United Kingdom; Scotland in particular. I do not doubt that this is true. Though not openly stated, this leads the average consumer to believe that most Scottish Highland regalia, even that purchased in Scotland, is actually made in Pakistan. This is patently false. Most of these items bedeck the shelves of 'tartan tat' tourist shops which litter the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and do not often find their way into the more traditional Scottish establishments. Many of these shop owners are Pakistani nationals themselves or of Pakistani descent. They often have familial business connections back home and understandably use this to their advantage.
What is especially troubling is the misleading advertising they use to sell their products. The label pictured to the left is a notorious example. Surrounded by a Celtic knot work border, it reads "Scottish Highland Kilt, Authentic Woven Tartan, Designed in Scotland". Yes, the tartan is certainly woven and yes it is a tartan (Anderson) that was designed in Scotland (in the 19th Century), but the kilt itself was designed, woven, and sewn in Pakistan. As a kilt maker, I receive a number of emails each week from these companies and, out of curiosity, I have perused some of their websites. What strikes me immediately are the pictures pilfered from the websites or catalogues of higher-priced British or North American competitors. Lochcarron of Scotland appears to be a favourite company to steal from. When I right-click on these images, a pop-up message will inform me that these pictures are copyright! Irony indeed. While I myself am a retailer of Lochcarron products I can assure you that these merchants are not. Their retail prices are well below Lochcarron's wholesale prices! Another disturbing discovery is the illegal weaving of copyrighted tartans such as the Isle of Skye which is owned by Rosemary Nicolson Samios and woven exclusively by Lochcarron of Scotland and Marton Mills of England. Re-labelled as something different, these garishly coloured versions are available from at least a few online kilt retailers.
Pakistani kilts are usually made from an acrylic fabric which is lightweight and extremely flammable. There are some companies who claim this acrylic to be 13 oz. or even 16 oz. weight. This is simply not true. For example, anyone who has owned a woollen car blanket/picnic rug and a similar acrylic version will notice immediately that, despite a comparable thickness in weave, there is a considerable difference in weight. Acrylic also "pills" very easily and does not shed water in the same manner as wool. These kilts are poorly constructed with no canvas interfacing or hand-stitching anywhere. The waistbands are often too wide and are not lined up with the stripes on the apron. Those of better construction show the work of someone who is good at sewing but does not understand how a kilt is actually constructed. It takes more than sewing skill to make a traditional kilt. To the untrained eye, these kilts may look like the "real deal", but to someone with more knowledge, they look akin to a sports jacket with one sleeve longer than the other and crooked lapels. This would not be acceptable to someone buying a suit, nor should it be acceptable to someone buying a kilt. All too often, people take the attitude that no one will know the difference anyway. They themselves will know the difference and so will some other people.
Is there a market for these kilts? It appears that there is. Is there a need? I'm not sure. Some consumers say these are good "starter" kilts meaning the wearer will naturally gravitate towards a more expensive, hand-sewn woollen kilt in the future. This may be true, but there are many people who spend a small fortune on multiple cheap kilts, each having a rather limited lifespan. This amount could have been better spent on one or two well-made kilts that could last a lifetime or more. These same people will even show up to formal events wearing these kilts, thinking it is the same as wearing a tailored and fitted kilt. At best, these kilts are "pub kilts" or "casual kilts".
To contrast, I will break down one of my tartan kilts for you: The tartan fabric is 100% worsted wool, woven either by Lochcarron (Scotland), House of Edgar (Scotland), Strathmore (Scotland), Marton Mills (England) and occasionally D.C. Dalgliesh (Scotland). The straps and buckles are manufactured in Canada by L&M, the lining and interfacing is woven by Kitchener Textiles, a local factory, and the thread I use is Gutermann (Germany).
Such is the result of globalisation. The West is fast becoming a gathering of merchants who no longer manufacture anything themselves. Instead we outsource these jobs to countries which have a large pool of underpaid labour and a disgraceful history concerning human rights. We want things cheap and we want them now. It does not matter that the item may break within a short time and needs to be replaced regularly. There is an old saying that some people know "the cost of everything but the value of nothing."
Should you buy these kilts? That's up to you to decide. The world is a free market and therefore cheap acrylic kilts have a right to exist, but there needs to be a greater truth in advertising and greater penalties for those who abuse the rights of their workers, be they children or adults. I'm simply telling you what I know from the industry point of view. However, that view is naturally a bit biased due to the nature of my occupation. Don't take my word alone, research these things for yourself.
- John Hart