The demand for so-called “cargo kilts” – kilts made from hard-wearing textiles – has surged over the past two years, especially among South African craftsmen.
“It’s all about comfort and freedom of movement,” says Egbert Harmse, owner of Cargokilts, a South African kilt manufacturer. Harmse has been producing traditional tartan kilts for years, but over the past two years saw a strong demand for the new-generation garments.
People in various artisanal fields, ranging from black smiths to diamond cutters, are buying cargo kilts because the garments allow them to move freely, Harmse says. The kilts – which offer great ventilation – are also much better suited to the South African heat than pants. The handy pockets on the kilts offer easy access to the tools of their trade.
Cargo kilts are also popular among men who have the guts and sense of humour to enjoy wearing something unique, Harmse adds.
“[Creating these garments] is a benign form of terrorism– it makes people happy.”
Harmse’s venture started thirty years ago as an ingenious way to smuggle beer into a university rag event in Potchefstroom.
Students were allowed to carry beer, but not permitted to bring any backpacks or carriers to the event.
Harmse, who studied mechanical engineering, devised kilts – each fitted with pockets which can contain 8 beer cans - out of a heavy curtain liberated from the university auditorium. And so started his journey to become a leading kilt-maker.
Harmse’s business manufactures tartan kilts from a factory in Springs.
His customers are South Africans of Scottish and Celtic heritage, as well as various army regiments and schools with pipe bands.
But some 60% of his production are exported, mostly to the UK, US, and Canada. Most of the kilts are worn by pipe bands and traditional regiments, and his clientele even includes royalty.
“A rather large percentage of the kilts and accessories at world famous events such as the Basel Tattoo were bespokely made by hand in Springs,” says Harmse.
Apart from kilts, he also produces tartan ties, caps and bespoke engraved sporrans. He has a number of overseas corporate clients who have businesses with Scottish themes – recently he provided a wide range of tartan products for a casino in Las Vegas.
Harmse weaves 104 kinds of traditional tartan, and also designs commemorative, corporate, and club tartans.
The wool for the tartan is spun and dyed in South Africa and then shipped to Nairobi, Kenya where it’s woven on an authentic tartan loom, which is more than a century old.
Harmse’s mechanical engineering background proved pivotal in resurrecting “a pile of cast iron and birchwood into a well-tuned machine”. It weaves double-width tartan in the age-old traditional way and to exacting historically correct thread counts and colour pallets.
“We’ve tried to import the loom to South Africa, but the Kenyan heritage authorities are adamant that it should stay in the country as it is part of its history.”
Even with the cost of weaving the tartan in Kenya, it is still much cheaper than importing tartan from Scotland. Taking the pound exchange rate and various import taxes into account, a kilt would cost R22,000 – four times as expensive as his tartan kilts.
A cargo kilt is much cheaper, but at more than R2,000 each is still pricey compared to the pants version. You can choose from various textiles, including denim, khaki and camo.
According to Harmse, the new-generation kilts are virtually indestructible.
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