For the love of gloves

Katherine Pogson shares her story about how she first became interested in hand-making leather gloves.

Vintage gloves from Katherine's personal collection

Vintage gloves from Katherine's personal collection

The first pair of gloves I ever tried to make were mint green, butter soft, embroidered - what was I thinking?

Back story: I lost one of my favourite leather gloves. Emerald green leather, silk lined, Italian. A burst of intense colour, but also a flattering fit - slim on the wrist, elongating the hand, reaching generously up the arm without suggesting gauntlet - I was in love.

I walked back for a full hour through the city streets retracing my steps, finding at least four forlorn single gloves, but not mine, not mine.

As someone who had worked with leather for over a decade, I thought I would rise to the challenge - how hard could it be?  I set to with my unpicker, stretched and traced round all the pieces (eight in total) of the remaining glove, calibrated my sewing machine to what looked like the stitch used, and...little did I know I was of on a journey of discovery that would still fascinate me five years later.

It was hot in the studio. I perspired. The natural oils in my hands began to stain the pale leather as I worked in the heat. Already, I was in new territory, learning, exploring, discovering  a completely different aspect and quality to this material that I thought I knew.

Which part of the skin should I choose for the palm, and how do you deal with the unpredictable stretch? What is that diamond-shaped piece between the finger for? How do you control the sewing machine in such a tight space as round the thumb?

I began to research. I found some wonderful books in second hand shops, and sought out hand stitched gloves in charity shops and vintage fairs.

By coincidence, one of the last remaining glove factories in Britain happened to be in the town where my parents live. I had always dismissed it as an unpromising, golf-sale sort of place, but now I came to realise that, inside that modest set of buildings, wonderful things were going on. Parcels were being sent of to Barney’s New York, to Japan. Centuries of tradition, expertise and the kind of hands-on, tacit knowledge that is so difficult to communicate except by doing, was stored up, and possibly, dying out.

It took me a while to persuade them to let me come in and watch on a regular basis. “It takes five years just to learn how to stretch the leather” they told me. Repeatedly. Eventually, generously, they let me come and watch Reg doing his magical thing with the stretch and the weird shaped ruler, Eileen patiently and effortlessly showing me how she hand stitches a glove in what seems like minutes.

I first made a glove for my right hand (I’m left handed, so I can adjust the right hand better). It split across the palm when I put my hand in. That was before I met Reg. I made another. I must have made about seven right hands before I felt it was worth making a pair. Learning by doing - it’s the best way...and by working with other people, other hands, passing on what I have learned so far, I have come to seriously love this almost forgotten craft.

Some Useful links:

Pittards fine English glove leathers
Dents fine leather gloves since 1777
Metropolitan Museum of Art's historic glove collection

And look out for this rare old book: 
Practical glove making, Isabel Edwards, Pitman & Sons, 1929