Anyone with a training in leather making soon becomes confused when faced by the various names given to the leather in historic gloves. Dr Mike Redwood tells us more.
This is not so much a matter of error but rather a question of how difficult it is to identify species in glove leather when a great variety of origins and processing methods were in use. Terms like kidskin, doeskin, buckskin, rat-skin, cabretta and lambskin, quite often do not mean what they apparently say.
One simple aspect of this was that while a leather from each animal type has an identifiable surface, or grain (the outer surface where the hairs create a pattern of follicles), retaining this surface intact through all the leather making processes is very difficult especially with the limited controls and equipment available until the 20th century. Consequently, many tanners accepted this fact and turned the surface layer into a suede form, which is sometimes called nubuck or velour as well as suede. A good quality suede can also be made from the other side, the inside, as long as all the fleshy material is carefully removed.
With only a sueded surface to look at rather than a surface follicular pattern it is hard to tell a sheepskin from a goatskin. Sometimes a cross section can help, but even so it can be difficult with thin leathers. Deerskins were often used as well for gloves – in fact we have an 8th century French church reference in which it was regulated that only superior officials could have deerskin while regular monks and clergy should only have sheepskin gloves. It was to be another two centuries before quality glove leather from sheepskin was generally perfected in France.
During the processing it was hard to clean the skins, remove the hairs and prepare the skins for the tanning process without damage. Any errors in temperature and timings would soon eat away at the surface. Some tanners achieved this by hanging the skins in the river for a few days to loosen the hairs, and in France hanging in a warm room to sweat was sometimes used to encourage bacteria to eat away at the hair roots. In those days the wool was often more valuable than the skin so some damage was accepted.
Another problem with identification has to do with the age and origins of the animal. It can be difficult to tell sheep and goatskins apart as they vary greatly by age and origin. While the woolly sheep we have in the UK are easily identified as sheep towards the dry tropical regions we have a type called a hair sheep which it is easy to confuse with goats. The skins of hair sheep are very different as the woolly sheep as we have in the UK have a layer of fat cells forming a middle layer halfway through the skin. This successfully keeps the sheep warm in the winter, but it makes it difficult to make a glove leather which is both thin and strong, whereas the hair sheep are famed for these properties.
Leather names such as regord and cabretta demonstrate some of this difficulty in being sure of the identity. Cabretta is a leather name which arose when the Portuguese invaded Brazil and found hair sheep in the arid regions of the north-east. They called them ‘cabretta’ or little goats. They had not checked that the tails went down, a characteristic of sheep, rather than up like goats. Supposedly this term got into an early edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and when the skins started to be shipped into the glove making city of Gloversville in New York State the name has stayed in use until this day; it is particularly common in sports gloves like golf.
The regord is a very old name. It is a French term for a mix of sheep and goat but soon came to be related only to the skins of unwanted male sheep which are killed very young to facilitate the production of sheep cheese such as the famous Roquefort. Roquefort cheese is noted as having been on sale in Ancient Rome although the glove making history of France, and especially Millau which is only a few kilometres from Roquefort, apart from in religious matters is not much recorded before 1000CE.
In some types of glove where the skin is very thin it is also difficult to pick out the skin of a young deer, especially if it has been produced in a sueded form. In reality all through history society has made use of all types of hides and skins that came available. This included dogs – used for gloves until the 1970s in the UK – kangaroo, possums and even rats at various times. Equally certain skins were only available in some countries. Some geographic origins but others less so. The UK did not have many goatskins so with domestic sheepskin only suited for heavier thickness gloves deer was the best local raw material. Goatskins started to be imported from Ireland, some still born calfskins were used but soon it was recognised that skins (or finished leather) had to be imported. This was aided by the fact that England had control of Gascony and Aquitaine for a few centuries and had good links to Spain meaning early traders were well placed for accessing some of Europe’s best quality gloving raw material, albeit the locals were often reluctant to permit exports. Bringing French kidskins or kidskin leather to the UK in the 16th century required an expensive permit, so deliberate misnaming at that time cannot be ignored.
With terms like doeskin, dog-skin, cabretta, mocha, regord and even rat-skin all used routinely for glove leathers with quite regular ambiguity about their actual nature it is not surprising that doubts should arise today. In the last decade we have started seeing DNA testing become available which can help define both species and geography, but so far it has mostly only been used on parchment and some archaeological leathers. For the moment identifying the leather found in old gloves is a mix of knowledge and experience, matched with detailed information on the context of the gloves. Meanwhile the excellent work now being done on gloves that involves studying original gift lists, inventories and correspondence may start to tell us more of the import trade, and about where various of the most important glove shops sourced at least of the leather they used.
We do know that the UK glove industry was steadily transformed during the 16th century as the Court centred more strongly in London and the initial importation of nearly all luxury items was steadily replaced by local manufacture. This change was accelerated by immigration often precipitated by those escaping from the religious battles going on in Northern Europe and in particular around Antwerp and the region around. Antwerp had become the trading and luxury goods centre in north of Europe and so these interruptions led to an inevitable displacement of skilled craftsmen in many sectors. The Sheldon tapestry business advanced rapidly after a Flemish expert was brought to England by a rich English patron, and we know they specialised in smaller items like cushions and gloves. The thought is that they made gloves in sizeable batches, but to date we have apparently no knowledge of what leather they used or where it came from.
We began to see rat skins mentioned during the 19th century when cities expanded and then started to use rat-killing dogs to reduce the populations. The use of these skins in gloves were mentioned a lot in both Paris and Gloversville. This was about the time kangaroo skins were being brought to the US and in Gloversville a lot of kangaroo production appear to have been termed as “ratskins”. There is no doubt from a brief look at the literature that some rat skins were actually used for gloves, although the skins were so small and thin that their usefulness must have been limited. An 1892 article in The Girls Own Paper, All About Gloves by Emma Brewer says: “it was at one time firmly believed that the best Paris Kid gloves were made of rat skins, but this seems improbable”.
Recently Dents posted a picture of a pair from their Museum suggesting the rat skins might have been used for training purposes. Perhaps this is something similar with the famous ‘chicken skin’ Limerick gloves, that became very famous when Queen Victoria used to order a few dozen of them from Ireland every year. The characteristic of these gloves is that they were extremely thin, and the pair could be folded into a walnut. The Museum of Leathercraft in Northampton has a pair, as do the Museum of London and, I believe, the Dent’s Museum. While some early ones may have been from chickens it is generally accepted that they were made from the skins of still born calves and this is supported by the ones we have in places like the Museum of London and the Museum of Leathercraft in Northampton.
The bodies of still born animals were viewed as a resource and not immediately disposed of, and in older times the numbers were large. The skins of all these animals were called “slinks” and being small and thin gloving was always a sensible consideration. Although today various such skins can occasionally be found around the world only sheep slinks from New Zealand have stayed as a viable commercial exercise and a lot of these skins are used as the woolly glove linings that we see in some winter dress gloves.
We are really fortunate to have so many gloves in collections and museums to help us interpret past centuries and to highlight the very high quality of craft involved in their manufacture. The important role that gloves played in many areas of societal and everyday life can be explained through understanding their wide-ranging uses and purpose in society, as well as through the large number of skills and crafts – tanning, cutting, sewing, embroidery, wire pulling, perfumery and tapestry work – involved in their production. Getting a better understanding of the actual leathers involved would be hugely helpful in allowing us to expand our knowledge of the sources, trading and leather processing involved.
By Mike Redwood
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