Lovely Old Things

Some of the best things are not new things. Case in point: The pleated tartan skirt. You remember the sort: hovering in the sweet spot between soft and crisp; woven of pure wool in rich, saturated colors.  The way its pleats swish when you swagger. Its vertical folds make you longer, leaner and leggier.

It's the perfect compliment to all of your hand knits.

You had one or more, back in the day, as did your mother, your grandmother, and all your cousins. Where can you get a new one now? No place, I'm sad to report. Not the kind you remember, I mean. Today's versions are inferior in every way: Not 100% wool, not the same high quality, and most definitely, not made the way they used to be.

A random assortment from my collection - the top one is in the process of restoration

But today I shine a ray of hope into your tartanless closet! The pleated skirts we love are still out there for the taking! That's right: They really were as good as we remember and I can prove it because so many have survived. In spite of neglect, changing fashion and, God Forbid, Moths.

Take yourself hunting at your local Goodwill, church charity shop, thrift store, Ebay or Etsy. You'll find all the tartan you want, at prices that are worlds less than new. Below are my sexy party tricks for finding and rehabilitating your perfect wool skirt:

1.     Determine fiber content. You need a skirt made of 100% wool. No manmade fibers. No blends. No exceptions. Your garment's ability to be rehabilitated depends most on this factor.

2.     Shop by brand. Pendleton, Locharron, Brooks Brothers and any label stating "Made in Scotland" are the ones to scout for. These garments were so beautifully made, and for so many years, that with a little tenacity you should be able to locate one or more in your size. Too big? Take it in. Too small? Release one or more pleats and replace the waistband. Too short? Check for a nice deep hem. Too long? Easy to shorten. Note: Use your measuring tape, if at all possible. The older the garment, the less likely its size (if marked) will have any meaning for you. The antique Malcom tartan shown above (navy) sports a tag marked "16", and measures the same as a modern "6".

3.     Assess the damage. There will more than likely be few issues you need to address. Don't worry; this is the fun part! Unless you love it beyond all sensibility, pass up any candidate that suffers from:

Pilling - this is an indicator of blended fiber content (no bueno).

Excessive Abrasion - hold it up to the light and look for thin spots.

Too many moth holes - a few can usually be mended without looking noticeable.

Clearly huge and/or dubious stains - have a little faith here though; most spots will disappear during rehab. If in doubt, give stain removal a whirl as long as the procurement price is right (I'm looking at you, girlfriend's closet).

Fusible web (ala "Stitch Witchery" of old, unless you have enough extra length to cut it off), which sadly cannot be removed.

Now part with your pennies and retreat to your lair for the metamorphosis.

1.     Remove all sales tags, ancient basting stitches, bad buttons and broken zippers. Gently and carefully remove the hem, unless your skirt is the perfect length. Take off the waistband if you are altering the size up or down, stabilizing the raw upper edge with a machine zigzag stitch.

2.    Wash it. This is where fiber artists have the advantage over mere mortals. We know that ignoring that "dry clean only" tag is the path to cleanliness/godliness. Pre-treat any spots or stains using your preferred wool-safe method. I like to indulge my skirts with a long bubbly soak in wool wash, just as with my hand knits. Unlike with knitting, I've also been known to use regular old detergent and the "hand wash" cycle on my machine. You'll be amazed what these old beauties can withstand. It's wool, after all. How many sheep do you see in line at the dry cleaners?

3.    Give it a gentle squeeze after the final rinse, or even better, toss it in your washer for a quick spin dry. Now hold it by the waistband and give an authoritative shake. Did the spots come out? If not, try a second wash, possibly with a longer soak. Once clean, hang your skirt by the waist from a clip hanger to dry, gently re-forming the pleats with your fingers.

4.    Once dry, do the necessary alterations and/or repairs. A new nylon zipper or horn button will take years off your garment. Now is the time to address any little moth holes or picks in the weave. Adjust the hem length now.  Pin and carefully hand stitch, making sure to match up the tartan bars. Press the new hem in from the wrong side, using lots of steam.

5.     Now restore the pleats. This is the step that keeps a pleated skirt from ever getting the true care it deserves. Cleaners charge anywhere from .25 to $1.50 per pleat, and usually get it wrong. Do it like this, and make little cha-ching cash register noises as you work:

My hem, seen from the wrong side, and back-basting

With the wrong side facing, re-fold the back edge of each pleat and pin, working from the hem up to the waist stitching.  Make sure the edges of the hem match evenly on each side of the pleat fold. With a long sharp sewing needle and bright, contrasting thread, make long running stitches to hold the back fold in place. Secure the basting thread with 2 or 3 backstitches at the end, which will be easy to remove. Once all the back pleats are basted, turn your skirt right side out. 

Pleats held in place with basting stitches on the right side

Now repeat the process for the right side of each pleat, working from the hem to the waist stitching. The fabric will "remember" where its pleats were, so this part is actually easy. Notice how the grain of the tartan is totally straight, and each color bar lines up precisely? Thank the original maker for constructing your skirt properly. They literally do not make them like this any more.

Almost done! All that's left is to re-set your pleats. I do this in three passes: 1. from the WS: With the skirt inside-out, I lay it over the ironing board with the waistband at the pointed end of the board. Then I pat as many pleats as fit across its width gently into place with my fingers. I spritz with a mist of water, then press on the wool setting with full steam. Remember; Press, don't iron (up and down, not back and forth). Let the weight of the iron do the work for you. Once a set of pleats is cool and dry, rotate the skirt and do the next group. 2. Flip your skirt to the RS and press only the folded edge of each pleat, one by one (cha-ching). 3.  Repeat the same process that you did on the WS, carefully lining up groups of pleats, misting and pressing.  4. Gently pick out all your basting stitches and give the pleats a final once-over with steam to remove any stitch marks left from the basting.

Ruby approves of all things tartan

Your work of art is now fully resurrected and ready for another few decades of worry-free service. Don't be surprised if you need to collect more and more tartan skirts; it's so gratifying to restore them to glory.  Have fun matching your beautiful tartan to your favorite hand knits, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You deserve it: you're a lovely old thing, too.