Monday, 1 November 2010
Dent's: How British gloves are made
There’s an odd little bit of Selfridge’s between Ralph Lauren and the Kurt Geiger shoe emporium. It contains general accessories – hats, scarves and gloves – and stands out because it is the one part of the menswear floor not obviously split up into concessions. Perhaps the licenses are too small to deserve more floor space; perhaps Selfridge’s wants at least one area that feels more like a store, less like a branch.
This is the only place I had previously come across Dent’s gloves; not exactly auspicious. But since I’ve got to know more of Dent’s people and history over the past couple of months I’ve begun to feel it deserves a higher profile. It is part of the great British craft tradition as much as Northampton, Savile Row or tweed.
Let’s start with a potted history. Dent’s was founded in 1777 in Worcester. John Dent’s sons, John junior and William, served seven-year apprenticeships beginning at the age of 15. It was their partnership that made Dent’s famous around the world. In the nineteenth century the company expanded rapidly and had subsidiaries everywhere from Sydney to New York to Prague. In the twentieth century it made the gloves for both George VI and Elizabeth II on their coronations.
Next, the construction. Glove making never really underwent a mechanisation phase, unlike most industries in the nineteenth century. It was too small and fiddly to encourage mass manufacturing. So while most gloves today are made in Asia on a vast scale, original makers like Dent’s still use hand cutting and individual judgment to get the models right.
Much like bespoke tailoring, the glove cutter is the most important person in the process, as he cuts the shape by hand and ensures the shape and so the fit is correct. Like clicking in shoemaking, much of the skill lies in getting the best part of the leather and in arranging efficient use of the skin. The cutting is done around card patterns that date back to 1845 and come in 20 different sizes.
The sewing varies throughout the Dent’s range, with the most expensive involving far more handwork – that’s one reason, along with the materials, that the models vary from £27 to £225. And the range is one reason the company has remained in business so long, catering for everyone from a House of Fraser in the Midlands to Harrod’s in Kensington. The top, £225 gloves are made in peccary (a small pig found in South America, valued for its hard wearing), entirely handsewn and lined with cashmere. All the gloves, though, are cut individually by hand.
The gloves are also ironed on a long line of heated brass hands – an image that appeals to me for some reason. Similar models of hands are used to insert the linings, which are sewn separately first almost like a glove in themselves.
That’s more facts on glove making than you probably every wanted, but I do like exploring a different clothing industry and learning about its techniques. Expect even more unwanted detail when I travel down to Warminster (location of Dent’s current factory) to see the process myself later in the year.