What is Belted Plaid?

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  • Written By: D. Messmer
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2019
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Belted plaid, which is also sometimes called a Great Kilt, is a type of garment that originated in the Scottish Highlands and is the precursor to the modern kilt. Belted plaid often also goes by its Gaelic names of either feilidh-mhor or breacan-feile. It consists of a large piece of cloth, some of which the wearer drapes over his shoulder and part of which he wraps around his body in pleats and then secures with either a belt or pin. The term "plaid" in Gaelic, literally means "blanket," and traditionally the fabric that the Highlanders used for their belted plaid doubled as a blanket for sleeping.

There are records of belted plaid dating back as far as 1594, although versions of the garment probably existed long before that date. Historians do not know its exact date of origin, though. Traditionally it would consist of a piece of cloth roughly 50 to 60 inches (127 to 152.4 cm) wide and anywhere from 3 to 6 yards (2.74 to 5.48 meters) long, depending on the size of the wearer and the availability of the cloth. Most looms at the time were only capable of producing fabric 25 to 30 inches (63.5 to 76.2 cm) wide, so the fabric of a belted plaid would consist of two strips of fabric sewn together to achieve the full dimensions. Contemporary producers of belted plaid will still usually sew two pieces of cloth together for the sake of authenticity.


The cloth that the Highlanders used was usually some form of tartan — a blend of wool and linen that produced a piece of fabric with a pattern of colored stripes. The tartans that were a part of the belted plaid, however, did not have the clan associations that are common among tartans today. The modern notion of "clan tartans" did not become common until the early 19th century.

There is some controversy over the exact process that the Highlanders would use to put on a belted plaid. Some claim that they would arrange the fabric in pleats on the ground and then lie down on the fabric in order to wrap it. Others believe that this is not true, since it is a cumbersome technique that would require placing the cloth on the frequently wet and muddy ground. Regardless, putting the belted plaid on must have been a difficult and relatively lengthy process, especially when compared to the tailored modern kilt.

Perhaps for that reason, belted plaid is uncommon today except as a celebration of Scottish tradition. They appear at traditional events like the Highland Games, and some highlanders have turned the donning of a belted plaid into a performance to entertain tourists.


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