Rosemary MacIsaac has been sewing since she was a wee lass in St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia. Today, MacIsaac is sewing for wee lasses around the world.
MacIsaac Kiltmakers is the only company of its kind in Atlantic Canada, and one of only a handful in the world. It may stand alone, however, as the only kiltmaking company that does it the way kiltmakers have been doing it for centuries – thoughtfully, painstakingly, and true to the tiniest detail.
“It takes 15 to 20 hours to make one kilt. It’s all hand sewn,” says Mac MacIsaac, who runs the Cape Breton-based firm with his wife. “That’s the traditional way,” he adds. “We don’t want to take short cuts.”
The authenticity and superior craft of a MacIsaac kilt speaks for itself – to thousands of customers around the world. Each year, MacIsaac and his wife travel to highland games, which are held around the continent and often attract upwards of 10,000 individuals. Here they offer potential customers and repeat buyers an up-close and personal look at authentic, hand-stitched kilts.
“We started by pitching a tent. Now we are hauling a double-axle tandem trailer,” says MacIsaac. “We’re becoming very well known for our commitment to quality. And people really enjoy chatting with the actual kiltmaker.”
The quality of the product is inextricably linked to the quality of the place where it is made.
“What we do wraps around the Cape Breton culture,” says MacIsaac. “We could be in downtown Halifax, but when we say we’re kiltmakers from Cape Breton Island, it has a ring of credibility.”
That genuineness is reinforced by the location of the kiltmaking centre – in the historic home the MacIsaac’s own. “The house is 145 years old. The floors creak. The ceilings are high; there are plaster moldings,” notes MacIsaac.
The kiltmaking magic emanates from the second floor of their home. On the first floor resides the couple’s latest business venture – a Celtic gift shop. In the summer, when business on both floors is booming, MacIsaac Kiltmakers employs up to eight people. In the run of a year, the company makes 250 kilts.
Much of the work happens from amid the swirl of tradition and history, but much of it also happens in the heart of the 21st century – via the Internet.
“We need to be innovative with respect to using technology,” says MacIsaac. “We use broadband to transmit digital images to customers. As long as we have the Internet, we can do business around the world.”
Finding staff for the kiltmaking side of the business, however, is a challenge. Rosemary, who has a degree in Home Economics from St. Francis Xavier University, stitched her first kilt under the watchful eye – and guiding hand – of a Cape Breton woman knowledgeable in the art.
That first kilt was for the MacIsaac’s daughter Veronica. However, once friends, neighbours and dancing mothers saw the fruits of her labour, they started placing orders for their own. Before long Rosemary MacIsaac’s home-based sewing business, then located in Halifax, had grown to the point where she had no time to make anything but kilts. That was in 1990.
In 2000, the couple moved to Rosemary’s hometown of St. Peter’s on Cape Breton, and Mac began running the business while Rosemary oversaw the making of the kilts. Still they needed help. But where could they find someone experienced in the art and craft of kiltmaking? Where else but from Scotland, the native land of the kilt.
Through a kiltmaker’s guild in Scotland, the MacIsaacs met Carol Fitzherbert, who agreed to come to Nova Scotia for one year. She stayed for nearly three. During this time a local woman, Kelly Gillis, began learning kiltmaking, which requires a year of training alone just to understand the process. “There are mathematical equations necessary to keep the kilt balanced,” explains MacIsaac.
MacIsaac Kiltmakers knows all about the value of deep roots and keeping the best of the past alive today. A traditional kilt is made from Scottish worsted wool, using eight yards of heavyweight tartan cloth, hand stitched and hand pleated. “It is no secret that a full eight-yard kilt will hang and swing better, because it allows for deeper pleating at the back,” explains MacIsaac.
“There is no doubt that a hand-stitched kilt is still superior in finish to a machine-stitched kilt,” he adds. “Even though the difference is not noticeable to the untrained eye, the difference is very evident to people who understand the subtleties.”
Authenticity is clearly a primary reason for the kiltmaking company’s success. It has also had a helping hand from Cape Bretoners around the world. “The island has so many ambassadors out there who speak about a magical place called Cape Breton,” says MacIsaac.
That magic is what drew Rosemary and Mac MacIsaac back to Cape Breton in the first place. It’s what shapes the nature of their business – and how that business is run. “We are very passionate about what we do,” says MacIsaac. “We put in long hours, but it’s not a rat race.”
“We’ve got a lifestyle people envy,” he adds. “People feel safe here. On Friday nights, the community gets together and has a meal. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Clearly, the husband and wife team understands the value of this place and the quality of life it offers. “I can go out my front door, pick up a stone and throw it in the Bras d’Or Lakes,” says MacIsaac.
“Is there some enjoyment in that?” he asks. His answer is unequivocal: “You bet there is.”
Feature story written by Donalee Moulton