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Glove Story

Gloves are of great antiquity and their story goes back to prehistoric times. They were worn by cavemen to protect their hands and took the form of bags resembling a primitive type of mitten - a glove with fingers and a gauntlet covering the forearm.

Thousands of years before the Scottish proverb, "touch not the cat without a glove", was written, primitive man had realised the necessity of shielding his hand.

In subsequent years, the farmer protected his hands from thorns and prickles when rooting out thickets to prepare the land for agriculture. So the glove first came into use to protect the hand against injury. These early gloves were much like mittens, made from the skins of animals, mostly deer or sheepskin, with the fur inside.

The wearing of gloves, other than for functional and protective purposes, was confined up to the 11th Century to the nobility, clergy and military.

The History of Gloves

Gloves are of great antiquity and their story goes back to prehistoric times. They were worn by cavemen to protect their hands and took the form of bags resembling a primitive type of mitten - a glove with fingers and a gauntlet covering the forearm. Thousands of years before the Scottish proverb, "touch not the cat without a glove", was written, primitive man had realised the necessity of shielding his hand. In subsequent years, the farmer protected his hands from thorns and prickles when rooting out thickets to prepare the land for agriculture. So the glove first came into use to protect the hand against injury. These early gloves were much like mittens, made from the skins of animals, mostly deer or sheepskin, with the fur inside. The wearing of gloves, other than for functional and protective purposes, was confined up to the 11th Century to the nobility, clergy and military.

In England after the Norman conquest, gloves were worn as a badge of distinction by royalty and dignitaries. The glove became meaningful as a token; it became custom to fling a gauntlet at the feet of the adversary, thereby challenging his integrity and

inviting satisfaction by duel. The glove to challenge personal battle became, and remained, an integral part of English Law for nearly 800 years. It was a right any free man could claim. Only little more than a century ago a Staffordshire man accused of murder threw down his glove in Court and demanded judge's permission to fight his accuser when death would claim the guilty one. Gloves were becoming a mark of distinction and honour. Gloves that were jewelled, embroidered, fringed, scalloped or tasselled were taking on a new social and symbolic significance.

In the 12th Century gloves became a definite part of fashionable dress. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, no well dressed woman would appear in public without them. Gloves were becoming more accessible to the common people and their popularity grew.

In the 16th and 17th Centuries gloves were extravagantly ornamented; they were of leather, linen, silk, or lace and were jewelled, embroidered, or fringed. After the 17th Century however, the emphasis was on proper fit, and gloves became less ornamental.

Modern gloves are made from fabric, plain or knitted; of leather from almost every variety of animal hide; and of rubber and plastic used in surgical, laboratory, and household work.

Development of Gloving Industry

Gloving centres began to develop on a wide scale from the 14th and 15th Centuries onwards. Perth Glovers however were said to have been the first burgesses, incorporating craftsmen in 1163. Perth became a prominent gloving place, before fading completely by 1836. Other Companies were established in many towns and cities including London, Worcester, York, Oxford, Chester, Newcastle, Hull.

By the 17th Century, London had become the hub of the glove trade on which apprentices and journeymen, seeking a wider experience, converged from all gloving regions. Although their craft had been protected against foreign imports, from the reign of Edward IV in 1462, controls became less stringent, such that by 1826 the barrier against imports was swept away in favour of the 19th Century Philosophy of free trade.

During the 18th Century, Worcester moved ahead of London as the largest gloving centre.

The city's pre-eminence was due to its geographical position on the River Severn and the natural land routes converging from the Midlands towards Wales. Sheepskins were converted to gloving leather by tawing, involving the use of common alum and salt, producing a softer, lighter leather with more stretch than that which came from the tanneries using oak bark. Worcester was a prosperous and wealthy city in the 15th and 16th Centuries, noted for woollen broad cloth of the highest quality. This material was not

produced solely by the clothiers but by others, including glovers. As the cloth trade declined, people and premises transferred easily to glovers, who were now becoming extremely dominant in the area. By 1910 a high proportion of total output was exported to the United States. However, the USA soon placed an embargo on all imports, bringing factories to a virtual standstill. The freeing of trade had detrimental effects on the workers and their masters. Between 1826 and 1866, the number of masters declined rapidly from 120 to only 40. The Great War brought an expanding engineering industry to the city and with its higher earnings permanently altered the labour situation.

In the early part of the 19th Century, the methods practised in the glove industry were little different from those pursued for hundreds of years. There was a greater use of capital and division of labour between men who dressed the leather and the women who sewed them. By the middle of the 19th Century the methods began to change. The most significant of these was the establishment of glove sizes and method of cutting, which was devised by a French Master Glover, Xavier Jouvin (1800 - 1844). He made use of uniformly proportioned knives, graded for size, giving a constant shape for the makers and establishing a reliable fit. Formerly, gloves were regarded as a contingency merchandise. To find a pair which fitted adequately, one had to try on several gloves. Now every hand could easily find the pair for its size. Jouvin's idea benefited from the development of high grade steel for the knives and the creation of the hand lever.Since 1775 inventors had sought to develop a sewing machine for making gloves but failed. In 1834 a two-thread machine was introduced into the gloving industry, for sewing the points on the back of the glove. A variety of other machines followed which enabled the operator to make complete gloves. The transition from hand to machine sewing caused many problems; less people were required to make the same quantities and piece rates were fixed by trial and error.

During the Victorian era, Yeovil replaced Worcester as the largest gloving area. It was during this period that the wearing of gloves became essential for men and women. Its piece rates were lower than those of Worcester, and its prices generally more competitive, with sales to every part of the globe. The area had all the basic strengths for continued expansion, with good linking roads, and a population that had expanded at a faster rate than the national average. The skilled workers were not averse to change when traditional methods became outdated. The empirical knowledge of leather manufacture was handed down by word of mouth and developed because of secrecy. Now it is based on technology controlled by University trained specialists. It is capital intensive, using expensive machinery, obligating a high and consistent output to recover ever increasing overhead costs.

After the Great War, the development of the engineering industry in Yeovil with its higher wages attracted young labour away from the traditional employer. The problems were compounded by the large scale imports of foreign made gloves, which were sold at prices below the cost of production in the UK. World War II bought about further decline which has continued to the present day.

It is part of our history, that in 1760, Sir William Johnson gained land from George III in North America. Perth Glovers were amongst those who first settled there and gave rise to the adjoining towns of Gloversville and Johnston, concerned solely with glove manufacture. In the last Century large numbers of craftsmen and women form Yeovil and Worcester, joined by glovers from European gloving centres, established these two towns as the great centre of the industry in the States. American glovers began transferring some of their capital, knowledge and orders, to the development and expansion of production in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. Competition from these and other Far Eastern Countries have become a major threat to the United Kingdom glove industry.

Contact Details

British Glove Association
C/O Crane & Partners
Sussex House
8-10 Homesdale Road
Bromley, Kent BR2 9LZ
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