THE KILT LADY
Canadian couple Dawn and Rick McNally turned a corner in their professional lives when a back injury forced Dawn to leave her nursing career and Rick retired as an auditor. After watching a television program about the history of Scotland and traditional kilts, Rick suggested Dawn try making hand-sewn kilts because she had a talent for making things from scratch. She took a kilt-making class in Ontario, and loved it. Their fledgling business – The Kilt Lady – took off from their home in Saskatchewan in Canada’s prairies four years ago and now, while Dawn makes the kilts, Rick does the books and product research.
“Both of us have deep Scottish, Irish and English roots. I am third-generation Canadian and Rick is first-generation Canadian,” Dawn said. “My father was very proud of his Scottish ancestry and I grew up with an appreciation of its history and tradition. Our Celtic history has always interested us.”
Dawn calls herself “a detail-oriented perfectionist” in everything she creates, including her kilts. “I enjoy everything about it, from discussing the project with the customer to actually making the kilt. I once counted the stitches I did for an eight-yard knife pleat kilt and it came to 7,467.”
The Kilt Lady works with woolen tartan mills in Scotland, England and Wales, which weave with a clean selvage that stops the bottom edge of the kilt from unraveling or fraying. Dawn’s hand-sewn kilts are made with either the knife-pleat or the more traditional, and less common, box-pleat.
“I realize that not everyone requires a hand-made kilt so I also offer kilts made by Locharron of Scotland that are partially done by sewing machine,” Dawn said. “But I don’t believe ordering a quality garment like a kilt on the Internet from a drop-down menu is right. I contact every customer before, during and after the construction of their kilt. People appreciate it.”
Competing with the mass-produced kilts and accessories that are available online is one of Dawn’s biggest challenges. Price is always a factor for clients, and there are many products that may appear to be similar but cost less. Also, the label ‘hand-sewn’ can mean that only a small amount of the kilt was sewn by hand. “My kilts are 100 per cent hand-sewn by me alone,” Dawn said.
The Kilt Lady also sells quality Highland accessories, such as cuff links, sporrans and brooches. Dawn and Rick try to source all of their accessories from either Scotland or Canada. They plan to add more Irish and Welsh products in the future.
Up until now, their market has been mainly in the Saskatchewan area. “We don’t have a lot of Celtic-related events here, but there certainly are a lot of people with Scottish, Irish or Welsh ancestry,” Dawn said. “When we attend festivals, we usually meet a lot of young people who have a Celtic heritage, but over time, have lost touch with it. They are very interested in talking to us and many of them want to regain that connection with their history. We find a lot of young people wanting to integrate some aspect of Celtic tradition into a special event such as a graduation or a wedding.”
The Kilt Lady now has a website and will answer messages received there. “We will also be attending as many Highland Games and festivals as possible to show people the quality of the products we offer,” Dawn said. “We want to offer products made by the craftsmen and women in Scotland, Ireland and England as much as we can, because we feel that we will lose the traditions if we don’t support them. The market we are catering to is looking for quality and can recognize it.”
The most important thing is that she and Rick are enjoying their new careers in the business they have created. Dawn loves watching the reaction of clients when they see their kilt for the first time.
“I try to build a relationship with each customer through the process of researching the tartan, determining the type and quality of kilt they require and through the construction of the kilt,” Dawn said. “When I’m finished, pride isn’t even the right word for the feeling I have.”