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Forever plaid: Kiltmaker leaves a legacy in Utah

Published June 6, 2013 1:50 pm

Tradition • Many Salt Lake residents have learned the art from Scotland-born Elsie Stuehmeyer.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Elsie Scott Stuehmeyer has hand-sewn so many kilts that her most precise estimate is "Oh gosh, thousands. Thousands and thousands."

The Scotland native has stitched kilts for Prince William of Britain and former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson — and through 19 workshops over 14 years, she has shared her technique with eager residents of Salt Lake City.

Although her recently completed workshop will be her last in Utah, Stuehmeyer's legacy will be draped across several hundred waistlines at the Utah Scottish Festival and Highland Games, which runs Friday and Saturday, June 7-8.

Chris McDonald, who first brought Stuehmeyer to Salt Lake City in 2000, said the world-renowned kiltmaker has had an undeniable influence on the local Scottish community.

"When I walk around the Highland Games I see so many of her past students who will point out the kilts on dancers, on pipers, and a lot of those people probably don't even realize that the knowledge to make that kilt came from Elsie Stuehmeyer," McDonald said. "Whether the Scottish community here realizes it or not, Elsie's had a big impact on them."

Stuehmeyer started making kilts in Glasgow, Scotland, serving as an apprentice from 1949 to 1954. She moved to America in 1973, and soon after, she held her first workshop in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.

"A woman who was teaching highland dancing there asked me to do a workshop and I thought 'Are you crazy? No one's going to want to learn how to make kilts,' " Stuehmeyer said. "Well, that was the first one and it snowballed from there."

Soon, Stuehmeyer was touring the globe. She held roughly eight workshops per year, traveling everywhere from Alabama to Australia. But although she taught her craft all over the world, she always had a special connection with Salt Lake City.

"I love Salt Lake City. I just absolutely love it," she said. "It was the only place I'd agree to go twice in one year. New York City, Canada, Australia, Colorado — those places I would only go once a year. But I love Utah."

Judging by the reactions of her students, the infatuation is mutual. Pam Wright, who took Stuehmeyer's class multiple times before starting her own kiltmaking business in Orem, described the workshop as "better than therapy."

"She's such a delightful lady," Wright said. "She's very peppy and she made learning how to make kilts fun, which isn't easy."

Stuehmeyer can attest to that. Her mother forced her to do an apprenticeship when she was 15, and she found the work miserable. Six decades later, she's thankful for her mother's decision.

"I never wanted to [make kilts] and I hated it while I was an apprentice," Stuehmeyer said. "But now I'm glad because I've made so many friends through the workshops and so many that I've taught have kept in touch throughout all these years. It's been amazing, absolutely amazing."

Along with the friendships, Stuehmeyer said that she continued to do the workshops to keep the heritage of hand-sewn kiltmaking alive. She said that most kilts now are machine-made, with less care and attention to detail given to each kilt.

Those who attend the festival in Lehi can see the kind of workmanship that Steuhmeyer puts into her kilts. Jaylene Macfarlane, a student of Stuehmeyer's, will display some of her own work, take orders for custom-made kilts and give several short presentations about the craft at a special booth.

"The way I teach my students, on the part of the kilt that runs from the right edge of the hip bone to the left along the small of the back, that part alone takes 3,000 stitches," Stuehmeyer said. "And it's all by hand. These days, with less and less kilts being made by hand, you don't have that workmanship anymore."


Utah Scottish Festival and Highland Games

Highland dancers, pipe band music, Scottish food and athletic competitions are part of this annual event.

When • Friday, June 7, from 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, June 8, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Where • Thanksgiving Point, 3003 N. Thanksgiving Way, Lehi; 801-768-2300

Cost • $15 for both days; $10 for students 12-18, and seniors, 65 and older; children 11 and younger free; $8 for Saturday night concert only

Details •utahscots.org/