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Gloves Off in Grenoble

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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.

old-fashioned glove making shears

Jean Strazzeri, glove maker extraordinaire, has used the same shears since he finished his apprenticeship in 1967.

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.

old glove making factory in Grenoble

In its heyday Grenoble’s glove making industry was in full swing, a heavy hitter in the city’s economy. Photo: Grenoble-Tourisme.com

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.

last remaining luxury glove maker in Grenoble

Why the fuss? Isn’t a glove just a glove, after all?

Not exactly.

“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.

glove that won the 2000 Best Artisan of France

The winning glove in its casing.

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.

beautiful kid gloves

There has always been something sultry about kid gloves, something reminiscent of the actresses in great films of the 1940s, something sophisticated and stylish, something glamorous. 

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.

machines for making gloves

The iron hand is used to cut gloves (left) while the heating hand stretches and irons them.

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.”

Jean Strazzeri, glove maker

Jean Strazzeri remembers glove making’s heyday and takes pride in explaining every step of his trade.

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.

This article is part of My Rhône-Alpes, a series in which I explore the stunning region in which I live in Eastern France. Thanks to the Grenoble and Rhône-Alpes Tourist Offices for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way. Photos by Anne Sterck unless otherwise noted.

4 Comments

  1. Jennifer on March 21, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    What beautiful gloves! I’d love to visit the shop and chose a pair, especially knowing the story and craftsmanship behind them.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on March 22, 2013 at 6:20 am

      Next time you drive South from Paris, stop off in the Rhone-Alpes and visit a bit. Most people just come in winter to ski but the more I explore my region the more I find out about its history and traditions. There are an amazing number of artisans, small shops trying hard to survive in the face of massive industrialization and they deserve help so spread the word!

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