When Jean Strazzeri finished his glovemaking apprenticeship in Grenoble in 1967, he was presented with a huge pair of shears.
More than four decades later, as head of the Ganterie Lesdiguières-Barnier he still uses them to cut his kid gloves. He’s the last of his class to do so because these days, making gloves is a dying art.
Grenoble has manufactured gloves since 1328 and at its height during the late 18th century, 64 glove makers fashioned more than a million pairs a year, for the local bourgeoisie, of course, but also for export. It was considered the luxury glove capital of the world, shipping to London, New York, and further afield to Tokyo and Moscow.
Glove making was the city’s lifeblood: during the 1800s one family in two depended on it. As glovemaking waned, first hydropower and then research and development drove the city’s industry. Even lingerie featured prominently in the city’s economy, but gloves were on their way out.
Today, the Ganterie is a small concern which produces some 200-300 pairs a month. The industry fell victim to the flood of Far Eastern products, not handmade, not elegant, not soft and sweet like the baby kid Mr Strazzeri uses but rough, squeaky, uneven, unattractive – and above all, cheap at €20 (US$30) a pair rather than the €60-500 you’ll pay for a handmade pair in his shop.
Why the fuss? Isn’t a glove just a glove, after all?
“I’m the last one to continue this tradition,” said Mr Strazzeri. “There are other glove manufacturers in France but they don’t work kidskin, which is robust and keeps its strength.”
This particular glove, designed in red and black in honor of Grenoble-born writer Stendhal, won Mr Strazzeri the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or Best Craftsman of France, the country’s top distinction for artisans.
The distinction allows professionals to wear the red, white and blue ribbon around their necks and to use the initials MOF, which they display proudly.
His dream is to perpetuate his craft by teaching the younger generation but apprenticeships have been cut from three years to one and that, he believes, simply isn’t long enough to train a glove maker.
“A new employee will cut six pairs of gloves in a day rather than 20, as they once did,” said Mr Strazzeri.
A long and winding road
Gloves were once made entirely locally. Not anymore.
Mr Strazzeri first buys his skins from a local abattoir, leftovers from animals that have already been slaughtered for food. He then drives 570km to a tannery, where he delivers at least 600 skins each time – they won’t handle any fewer. To my surprise, all skins are returned from the tannery in – shades of white!
The kidskins are sorted into four stacks according to the color they will be dyed: black, dark colors, pastels and those destined to become suede because their shiny side can’t be used. The stacks, along with color samples, travel back to the tanner, this time for dyeing.
Finally, colored skins in hand, production can begin, an artistic sequence in which skins are divided by color and matched and sorted: two gloves, four gloves, six gloves.
The skins are moistened, stretched, and finally, cut on the ‘Iron Hand’, a local invention that can cut the fingers out of ten gloves at a time.
After cutting, each glove is lined with silk or cashmere, and the sewing begins, with a veritable puzzle of 22 pieces assembled for each pair. Every piece is numbered so it isn’t lost, and sewing is done by hand or on a machine that is at least 100 years old.
The finished glove is then slipped gently onto a ‘heating hand’, the equivalent of a glove-shaped iron which smooths and straightens the tender leather.
Made in France
Their popularity may have faded but gloves are experiencing something of a comeback, with several generations buying at once.
There is also renewed interest in French-made products and in preserving traditional crafts, all of which is helping the Ganterie survive.
“There is nothing like a handmade glove,” said Mr Strazzeri. “You can always tell them apart.”
One day, in the Bon Marché department store in Paris, a shopper spotted and requested a pair of Lesdiguières-Barnier gloves from the showcase. The saleslady brought her something inferior from the back, telling her they were the same.
“No they’re not,” insisted the customer, lying them side by side. “Surely you can tell the difference. Just look at the seams. And the skin.”
Mr Strazzeri happened to be standing nearby. He beamed, and quietly walked away.
What every Woman on the Road should know
- The Ganterie Lesdiguières-Barnier welcomes groups who want a personal explanation of how authentic kid gloves are made.
- Visit the shop at 10 rue Voltaire in the Quartier des Antiquaires. And while you’re there, have a look through the area’s many antique shops.
- The Ganterie is right downtown so you won’t need any public transport.