Kilt-y Pleasures: Age-old fashion makes for a lucrative business at Alt.Kilt

“Some of my friends don’t own any pants,” says Alt.Kilt founder and owner Regina Davan. “They only wear kilts.”

Kilts have been around since the 16th century, and the garment is largely associated with Scotland, where plaid tartans of various colors have carried on through the ages under clan names such as Wallace or Meldrum.

But at Alt.Kilt on Madison’s east side, Davan has been creating custom-made, contemporary versions for casual, formal, or steampunk fashion wear since 2006, and business is booming. Her kilts differ from the traditional garments in the fabric, pleating, and accessories used, she explains, and men represent 95% of her clientele.

“People don’t buy handmade clothing that often, which is why I think some of my target audience is a little bit older. They’ve usually gone through owning a good [tailored-to-fit] suit. They understand what that means.” — Regina Davan, owner and founder, Alt.Kilt

Davan, 36, never intended to get into kilt-making. In fact, she was a website designer before deciding to pursue a career as an optician. Then, during her second semester of optometry school, her youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia.

As a single mother, she made time in her schedule for his treatments by reinventing herself once again, this time taking a UW-Madison theater class and working in a costume shop.

Eventually, she earned a degree in costume technology, “trying to find a way to make a 3-D object from a 2-D design.” Only then did she learn how to sew.
Then one day a friend approached her with the idea of making him a kilt.

“I made the first one, then unfortunately realized I could make it better.” After that, it became an obsession as she tweaked and perfected the process.

Since then, Alt.Kilt has sold an average of 250 to 300 kilts every year, and 2014 was particularly good, with more than 350 orders placed.

Davan has made a kilt for the man who plays the Indian in the Village People, a California motor cop, and men who simply prefer kilts to pants. Internationally, she ships mostly to New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Everything is paid for in advance in U.S. dollars through Square or PayPal.

The company’s contemporary kilts are usually made from 100% heavyweight cotton or poly-cotton. They have standard 3-inch box pleats, unlike the more narrowly pleated traditional garments. Everything is custom designed, custom made, and custom fit, though she’s refused requests for offensive symbols or copyrighted sports team logos. A request for a rubber kilt was also denied. “I researched it, but the cost wasn’t worth my time,” she said.

Aiming to pleat

In her large studio, Davan lays out a long piece of fabric that will be transformed into a kilt measured to a 36-inch waist. Her contracted employees have already stitched in 12 pleats and created the fell, or the hip line across the garment where the pleats begin, usually 8 inches from the top.

Davan sews in the apron, the wider pleat in the front of the garment, and irons the fabric repeatedly to set the pleats. With a machine, she sews tiny stitches down the length of each pleat to hold the shape.

Back at the table, the fabric is stretched out again. Working from the top, she narrows each pleat by folding the fabric on each side, eventually shrinking the top of the garment from 49 inches down to the required 36-inch length. “A 36-inch waist usually needs 12 pleats,” she says, “but 34-, 35-, or 36-inch waists will all have 12 pleats. It’s all about how tightly you pleat it to make it fit.” After creating thousands of kilts, Davan just knows.



When the wrap-skirt is complete, she creates and sews on the waistband and adds belt loops. Davan uses buttons (rather than snaps) on her designs and adds other custom details, such as leather, or metal rings and hooks as requested. She can also alter the appearance of a kilt with distressed painting.

She gets all kinds of customers, including firefighters who have requested kilts made from their bunker (yellow, Kevlar-enforced) gear. “When I did my first fireman’s kilt, the Kevlar content was high enough that I couldn’t cut it with scissors, so I had to use my husband’s metal shears.” Hardware from the firefighting gear is also incorporated into the design. “It comes with a reflective strip,” she said.

One karate school owner asked Davan to design a kilt from his karate gi, and he even sent her his custom nunchucks so she could add a customized pocket. “I took apart his gi and built it into the fabric,” Davan said, “then worked the rest of it around the regular fabric. I don’t get a lot of orders for white!”

In fact, the most-requested color is olive or military greens, followed by black. A basic style costs $175, and specialty kilts can run as high as $500. Davan preshrinks all fabrics, and all garments are machine washable.

Leather kilts, a fairly new option, will cost even more. “Leather is expensive,” she says, and costs fluctuate because prices follow the cowhide market. “Plus,” she says, “fabric behaves. Cows, on the other hand, aren’t rectangular, so you have to take the hide and make it into the fabric shape.” Excess leather is used to create pockets and accessories.

Price is right

It took Davan awhile to figure out her price point after initially starting off too low. “There were no guidelines to follow, no history,” she said. “No one else in the kilt market does what I do, so it’s hard to figure out that line between what’s too much for customers, yet letting them know what the value is, and I pay my workers higher than minimum wage. They’re getting handmade, quality work that will last forever, but you still have to make it reasonable enough,” she said. Labor adds the most cost.

“People don’t buy handmade clothing that often, which is why I think some of my target audience is a little bit older [30 to 45]. They’ve usually gone through owning a good [tailored-to-fit] suit. They understand what that means.”

Davan is Alt.Kilt’s only full-timer. She also has three part-time sewers and two contractors who stitch the kilts from home. It takes between four and eight hours to complete a kilt, depending on the detail. Currently, 80 orders await completion, but in the summer months, that number can quickly build to 120. A six- to eight-week turnaround is normal, but 12 weeks is common during busier times.

Growth is hard, Davan admits. “It takes a long time to hire someone who can sew. It’s not a skill set that is done much anymore at the level I need it.” She also worries about her business getting too large. “If I add two or three more people, do we lose some of the edge of what we’re doing? Where is the fine line between being a custom shop and turning into a factory?”

In 2009, after self-funding Alt.Kilt for many years, Davan received her first $5,000 business loan from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. (WWBIC) to upgrade machines and hire staff. Until then, she was running herself ragged as orders kept pouring in. “I could have started out with a business loan, but then I would have started out in debt, and that wouldn’t get me anywhere,” she admits.

More recently, she took out a second WWBIC loan for $10,000 to purchase an embroidery machine. Aside from that, Alt.Kilt operates entirely as a cash business, paying upfront for everything.

Alt.Kilt fans and repeat customers have also been overwhelmingly supportive on two Kickstarter campaigns she ran, the first to print a book illustrating her kilt-making process and the second to help her expand into leather, which required her to purchase a special sewing machine.

“The ability to know in advance that something may work out is really helpful,” she noted. “I don’t know how long this market will exist, but I’m going to keep riding it as long as it does.”

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