Scottish heritage and craftsmanship preservation: meeting Emma Wilkinson. Designer, embroiderer, kiltmaker.
Before permanently moving to Edinburgh in 2018, I had visited Scotland multiple times since my childhood. I do not have very precise memories from first visits, but I do remember that even back then, I had been struck by what I felt, without putting a name on it, was Scottish identity.
Among many other things in Scotland, I have always been fascinated by kilts and tartans. I thought they were a unique and distinctive garment and cloth, but it took me quite some time to realise why, and how special they are.
Since my extensive travels in Scotland in 2017, I have learnt quite a lot about tartan, its history and making process, through research in books and multiples visits to Lochcarron of Scotland in the Scottish borders. But until last year, kilts were still a mystery to me. I had read about it, and seen many from a distance, worn by people in the street. Unfortunately, occasions to get my hand on a true high-quality handmade kilt were quite rare, and I really wanted to learn more about it.
My first meeting with a kiltmaker
After walking past Gordon Nicolson kilt hire shop on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile dozens of time, I finally had the chance to meet some of the team through my job in the tourism industry last summer. It was a great opportunity to learn about it, ask them question, and see (and feel the weight of) an actual 8 yards kilts!
More recently this year, I met one of their kiltmaker, Emma Wilkinson, and truly fell in love with her work. Award winning textile designer and embroiderer, Emma is also a fully trained kiltmaker from the Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy – a course provided by Gordon Nicolson kiltmakers, aiming to train the next generation of kiltmakers and improve the standard of traditional kilt making. After finishing over 76 fully handmade kilts, she will soon start to teach to the next generation of students.
Speaking of generation, what I find fascinating in Emma’s work, is that it always creates links between Scottish heritage, craftsmanship, History, and contemporary design, thinking and issues. For example, her amazing collection, Am ri Teachd – « Future » in Gaelic – in which she takes visual influence from Scottish History’s most iconic characters like Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI and I, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and George IV, who all played a part in Scotland’s present.
I am very thankful that she accepted to answer a few questions and give me her own perspective on questions I have about her work, and about Scottish traditional crafts like kiltmaking.
Emma Wilkinson, from embroidery to kiltmaking
Atelier Escapades: To begin with, can you tell us why did you decide to study textile? What inspired you?
Emma: My textiles path has been a bumpy one! I was originally studying law straight out of school after my art teacher told me I’d never get into art college – as an impressionable 17 year old you take these things to heart and make choices that maybe aren’t the best for you as a result. A year into studying law I experienced a personal tragedy, the unexpected passing of a friend, which changed the course of my life forever and still shapes a lot of my work today. I had to come to terms with mortality aged just 19 and decided I had to give my life to something I loved – I didn’t understand what this meant exactly at the time but I knew I had to design and create to feel good…so that’s what I decided to return to.
I used my knowledge of law to create an online printed fashion business – I printed my drawings onto clothes, phone cases and eventually started adding embellishments too. This tiny business ended up serving as my portfolio to get onto HND Textiles at Edinburgh College – this course opened my eyes to all the possibilities of textiles and really kickstarted my passion for craftsmanship in fashion and embroidery. From the beginning of my time at college, then all through my degree and even now, my work is all about telling deep stories and creating subtle messages on difficult subjects through a beautiful medium – saying something through my work is what really motivates me to do it.
Atelier Escapades: Being born and bred in Edinburgh, can you tell us how your relationship with tartan and kilts has evolved over the time, and how did you end up becoming a kiltmaker?
Emma: I think I’ve had a subconsciously relationship with kilts and tartan my entire life, it just took a while for me to appreciate it for what it is! My dad plays the bagpipes so I was always around Scottish traditions through his playing and summer holidays up to the highlands to visit glens, castles and highland games – I always loved it! I wore a kilt to school myself and come from a family with a long military history, again kilts were around, but I think I took their presence for granted because it was just a part of my life. Growing up in Edinburgh is a privilege, I love it here, Edinburgh is a part of my personality and it inspires me every day. I’m lucky I love my home town so much I never fell into the trap of scathingly looking at tourist shops full of Royal Stewart and Black Watch products because I knew there was more to tartan than just “tat”.
By the final year of my degree I started to see the rich relationship between Scotland and textiles. My graduate collection “Rebuild” told my personal story through the visual inspiration of the decay yet progression that exists in Edinburgh. It was while researching for this collection, that would make or break my degree classification and everything I’d worked for, that I began to think a career in heritage crafts would be for me, I began to understand truly the beauty of kilts and my story telling textiles were doing what tartan does for so many…
I was walking down the Royal Mile taking research photos to kickstart my collection and happened to turn my head to Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers on the Canongate and saw a sign for kiltmaking courses in the window, and it just stuck with me! When I graduated I went in and chatted about the courses – I didn’t have any money, I was working in a bar, I didn’t want to just flee to London to find any textiles jobs I wanted to forge a career in Scotland doing what I did best and kiltmaking brought everything I love and care about together so I went for it! I got funding from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust becoming the first and only kiltmaker to ever receive this accolade which (ever gratefully!) paid for me to take on the full EKA course.
Atelier Escapades: Your work is often, in many ways, directly linked to Scottish heritage. Was it something that you already had in mind when you started your studies in Textile?
Emma: The first ever textiles project I did at college was based on Venice – its history, its architecture, its culture, its traditions. My last ever collection at uni was based on Edinburgh – its architecture, its culture, its traditions. I think this innate, perhaps, connection to heritage has always been there due to spending summers in the highlands, city breaks to European cities, and around a family with quite traditional values. It has just developed over time to become closer and closer to home. Scots’ are natural born story tellers except I don’t have a way with words! So, my stories come through in my work. I have a big place in my heart for heritage – what makes societies tick, what motivates people to care about the things they do, looking back at history in a bid to understand the future. As my work develops and as I grow older the more connected to my heritage I become too.
Atelier Escapades: You are giving lectures at Edinburgh College and you are going to start teaching at Edinburgh kiltmakers academy. What is your motivation or goal, when teaching?
Emma: I was really nervous about running a lecture, workshops and a project for Edinburgh college’s HND Textiles students. My time at college was so valuable and so important in starting my career that I didn’t want to let the students down! I was overwhelmed and so moved by how amazingly and creatively the class responded to doing a project based on kilts and tartan – their final outcomes were fantastic and truly encapsulated my vision for pushing this tried and tested traditional industry forward. I ended up really enjoying tutoring! It sounds cliché but I can safely say that working with the next generation of textiles designers inspired and motivated me in many ways to keep pushing forward too as well as highlighting again to me the importance of skills sharing and education in crafts to a serious professional level.
Ultimately, I want to pass on my skills to ensure they continue, to secure their future in an ever digital world. We are experiencing a time in the world right now where things have slowed right down which has highlighted what is important and the ability to make and create are what have helped a lot of people through lock down. My goal Is to teach these skills to see them be highly respected, for artisans to be paid fairly, and create a supportive and positive community of craftspeople keeping key skills alive.
Atelier Escapades: Do you think that the exposure Scotland got in recent TV Shows (“Outlander”), and films (“The outlaw king”, “Mary Queen of Scots”) had an positive influence on the interest of people for Scottish heritage, both internationally and nationally ?
Emma: Since Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites rose to prominence in 1745 and the 1822 visit of George IV to Edinburgh the media has played an unbelievable role in the positive and negative perceptions of Scottish culture. From unflattering drawings of kilted Jacobites being published in English newspapers to the Victorian’s creative ability to successfully commercialise highland dress to Outlander fans visiting Scotland in the hopes of bagging themselves a Jamie Fraser, us kiltmakers have a lot to thank the media for and also sometimes end up putting our heads in our hands over (always in good humour though)!
I recently did some research into the “Outlander Effect” with the input of EKA Kiltmakers (a topic I am still looking deeply at) and was met with a largely positive response across the board to this shows impact on our industry. Some felt it had dumbed down our culture in many ways while others were extremely positive about its effect on Scotland across a number of industries including our own. Personally, I feel very grateful to the likes of Outlander for putting Scotland on the map for an enormous audience. Despite being asked a thousand times “what tartan am i?” the excitement on peoples’ faces seeing a cloth that means something to their family name is a real pleasure, people want to have even a tiny connection to the culture that has shaped me, that’s flattering – and recent media portrayals have done a great job of letting people know we are here and we are creating and we want to share our culture with you! Closer to home, I also think these portrayals have opened Scot’s eyes to their history too – having been someone who took it for granted to someone who lives and breathes it I know the power a single eye opening portrayal can have! So, in a nutshell, I’m grateful to these films and shows for showing Scotland in the exciting, dramatic, fun, homely light it deserves….and I don’t mind telling a million people what tartan they are if they want to know!
Atelier Escapades: Mostly every industry has been affected by the current Covid-19 pandemic. How have you and other kiltmakers working at Gordon Nicolson adapted to this situation?
Emma: In many ways Scottish craftspeople are the original self-isolators! From Harris tweed weavers to kiltmakers, we can and do work from home spending hours and hours on our own concentrating on a project. While some kiltmakers work from home all the time and found little difference, I have shifted from having an exciting and inspiring place to go to work every day to completely working from home which has had its challenges – As someone who soaks up inspiration everywhere to staring at the same wall everyday it’s been tough to keep myself positive and motivated (a feeling shared by millions of people I imagine). I’m lucky I have continued to have work to crack on with and focus on – kilts, personal projects designing tartan and embroideries and making scrubs for the NHS. Equally, it has been a time to reflect and set some new goals and benchmarks for the future.
Atelier Escapades: Can you tell us a bit about your plans and projects for the future?
Emma: This year I have been raising money and awareness for Dementia. This is an issue extremely close to my heart. My work consequently has shifted slightly from looking at my home to looking at this devastating disease in a bid to raise awareness through textiles. I was lucky to in the Hand and Lock International Prize for Embroidery in 2018 with a piece based on Scottish landscape and military uniform, and this year I have decided to enter again with a piece on dementia. I’m looking at both my Grandmother’s stories, their deterioration through the disease, the effect it has had on us as well as visual brain scans of the differences between a healthy brain and a brain with dementia – the lights literally just start going on and I’m using this as the visual catalyst for the project. I will then create embellishment using contrasting colours and textures to envelope my own Grandma’s dining chair (I have a thousand memories of her in this chair and I want to give it a new life) just as the disease does to the people it effects. I am deeply connected to my work but this project is proving to be a particularly emotional one while also being strangely therapeutic at the same time.
Aside from this big project for the year, I plan to keep making kilts, keep working hard and chasing a good standard of living from it (which all professional craftspeople deserve!), and I plan to keep designing tartans as personal projects and weaving them all in the hopes of one day being a fully-fledged tartan designer!
A life in Tartan
Meeting Emma and having her talk about her passion for all things textile and creativity was fantastic and rich learning experience. She is a truly inspiring designer, and has lots to offer to the world in the future. In my opinion, Emma embodies the young generation of Scots, proud of their roots and heritage and committed to learn, develop their skills and keep traditional craftsmanship alive while adding their own personal touch and story.
Having travelled and lived in different countries with an equally rich History and craftsmanship like France and Japan, I have been really impressed to have met many different young people in Scotland passionate about learning traditional skills and make their own, to create something new, bold yet deeply rooted in tradition and heritage.
If you want to learn more follow her kiltmaker’s life and other creative projects, I really recommend you to follow her blog A life in Tartan.