The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice in Highland takes a niche business worldwide

Bob and Doreen Browning of the Kiltmaker's Apprentice at 54 Vineyard Avenue in Highland. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Bob and Doreen Browning of the Kiltmaker’s Apprentice at 54 Vineyard Avenue in Highland. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The name of Bob and Doreen Browning’s specialty shop in Highland — The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice — occasionally causes some joking around by loyal customers, who like to rib the couple, “Apprentice? Haven’t you gotten it down yet?” But the name makes perfect sense when you know the story behind it, which comes from Doreen’s apprenticeship with master kiltmaker Ann Stewart.

Doreen is of English and Irish heritage, but Bob comes from a long line of Scots, so she set out to buy him a kilt one year for his birthday. During the course of ordering it from Stewart, Doreen asked the renowned kiltmaker if she needed any help sewing in her shop. Doreen apprenticed under Ann for four years to learn the craft, and when Stewart retired, the Brownings bought the business and moved it to Highland where they set up shop on Vineyard Avenue in 2005.

It’s a very specific niche business. Along with creating custom kilts hand sewn from woolen fabrics imported from England, Scotland and Wales, The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice rents kilts with all the associated accessories. And even though Highland doesn’t have a lot of foot traffic in the hamlet, and one would wonder how many customers there would be locally for such a specific service, the shop’s presence on the Internet draws a worldwide clientele, with customers from as far away as South Africa, Australia and even Scotland.

Doreen sews all the custom kilts herself with some help from an assistant. It’s not easy to find a seamstress who is comfortable with the exacting process, she says, part of which requires stitching 28-32 evenly spaced pleats in eight yards of woolen fabric. No two kilts are alike, and the repeat in the patterning of the plaid fabric influences the placement of the pleats, so that stripes line up evenly and the tartan — the pattern of interlocking stripes that is an important part of the kiltwearer’s heritage — is shown to its best advantage. “It takes a lot of math skills,” Doreen says. Sewing a kilt is such a specific skill, in fact, that she says it has daunted even very experienced seamstresses with costuming backgrounds who tried to work in the shop and ended up admitting, “I’ve never been so humbled in all my life.”

It takes an experienced kiltmaker like Doreen approximately 10 to 12 hours on average to make one by hand. Only a few small parts of the kilt are sewn on a machine for added strength. Most of the kilts available online now are completely machine-made, she says, because the last of the kiltmaking schools that used to teach the craft has closed. Anyone who is making them by hand now most likely also learned the skill in the same way Doreen did, as an apprentice to a master kiltmaker.

And what is the difference between a plaid and a tartan? The word “plaid” actually comes from the Gaelic word “plaide,” Doreen explains, which means “blanket.” The original kilt was a belted length of cloth (basically a large blanket) gathered at the waist. And when the Scots came to the Americas and referred to their garment as a plaide, Bob adds, people mistakenly began attributing the name of the garment to the tartan fabric, and the name “plaid” stuck.

The cost for a custom kilt at The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice is $550, and the various accessories one wears with it add on to the price from there. The kilts are commissioned by private individuals for their own use, and by pipe bands to perform in. Doreen makes kilts for organizations that include the St. Andrews Society of New York (the oldest charitable institution in the state, founded by Scotsmen in 1756), and for the State Police Pipe Band. Both groups have a restricted tartan not available for anyone else to use, says Bob.

Doreen also does alterations on old kilts that are passed down through families or that have “shrunk in the closet,” as Bob puts it. The oldest kilt Doreen ever worked on was 100 years old, an original pipe band kilt from Holyoke, Massachusetts that the owner wanted to wear for the 100th anniversary celebration of the band.

Bob handles more of the business side of things, including sales, rentals and organizing the couple’s trips to various Scottish Games events throughout the Northeast where they maintain a vendor presence. The rentals are a mainstay of the business, often utilized for wedding parties but also for corporate and other special events where the kilts add Scottish flair. Their inventory fits everyone from the ring bearer — who often steals the show, Doreen says — to the father of the bride, and they’re one of the few shops that not only make the kilts but have a substantial inventory on hand to rent in-house.

“We’ve rented to all but two of the states, and they’re not the two that you’d think,” says Bob. “They happen to be Utah and Idaho. But we’ve rented to Hawaii and Alaska, and all of the other states as well as to Scots. If there’s a Scot coming over here to go to a wedding and he wants to vacation afterward, he doesn’t want to carry his kilt around. So we’ll dropship [a rental] to his hotel, and he’ll use it and then turn it in to the concierge who ships it back to us. We’ve had quite a few of those.”

The rentals are offered in five different plaids that cover the range of what people are looking for. The couple started off stocking Black Watch and Dress Gordon plaids, and then added Scottish National, Irish National and Welsh National. While specific clan plaids can be special ordered to sew the custom kilts, there are more than 5,000 different tartans, says Bob, so it would be impossible to keep all of those in stock for rentals in all the sizes.

The largest wedding party they outfitted numbered 19 men. “The only problem we ever have,” says Bob, “is the mother of the bride who doesn’t want her daughter in the background. Get a guy in a kilt, and the girl’s in a plain white gown, and guess who’s going to stand out?”

The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice at 54 Vineyard Avenue in Highland is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 or by appointment during the evening. For more information, visit www.highlandkiltshop.com.