Looking at the records written about the magnificent gloves of the 16th and 17th century that we find in museums throughout the world we often marvel at the gauntlet style with the large cuff displaying fabulous embroidery, gilt threads, jewels and all manner of fringes and tassels. Anyone with half an interest in dress, fashion, craftsmanship or materials is excited by this tiny picture of our society.
Correctly identifying the material and the country of origin is hard with such gloves. Despite a 400 hundred years of continuous and frequently restated ban on imports many gloves were smuggled into the country or brought in as gifts. They were a routine and safe gift for royalty and members of the wider Royal Court who also regularly “ordered” them from friends who frequently travelled abroad. There was also, apparently, some import of leather although I have not been able to find any real detail of this. Here I will meander through some thoughts on materials, and I emphasise they are only thoughts as my experience of examining these gloves is limited and I am not a historian of fashion.
Under the microscope
It is difficult to identify historical leathers, and complex detective work is involved. It is generally easy to separate out the surface or grain of sheep, goat, pig and cattle hides and some other species like stingray and shark; but getting into kangaroo and dogskin is more complex as is telling a goat skin from some older sheep especially when there is a significant amount of finish on the leather. Looking at the grain is the normal route, and a magnifying glass or low-level microscope is useful; one can compare views with quite a range of databases. With this in mind most leather people have ensured they have access to “Leather Under the Microscope” for this.
This magnificent book was written by Betty Haines MBE (1925-2003) who joined the Leather Conservation Centre (LCC) as a Trustee in 1978 later becoming Chairman and finally President, having followed it from its inception in a small room at the BLMRA. Amazingly it looks from what I learned only in December 2019 that the LCC have the slides that she built up over the years and would have used for her book, by far the best reference database in the world, especially since many skin types would no longer be accessible. Some are shown in the picture.
It is much harder when we are looking at a suede or a velour that will not have a grain pattern to aid us. The workmanship, the fineness of the buffing, the quality of the unhairing and the age of the animal are only some of many elements that might influence the look of the leather. With leather from the16th and 17th century made up into precious gloves, with a lot of uncertainty as to which European country the raw material has come from, and where it was processed jumping to conclusions would be a mistake. It is extra hard for a tanner since handling is restricted and cutting pieces to look at cross sections forbidden.
Equally in this sphere it is hard to bring all the best knowledge together. Not many skilled tanners have spent time looking at historic artefacts in such detail. In the UK we have been lucky that Betty was involved and closely supported by Jim Jackman who was a top leather technician and ran the Booth Research team. She also had expert knowledge amongst her colleagues at the BLMRA. The amount of time spent looking at gloves, though, would have been very limited indeed, as both had busy jobs and Jim was very involved in the Roman leather finds being made on Hadrian’s Wall.
On the material side we are normally told that the leather is kid skin or doe skin, sometimes with the term buff attached or used as a type of its own. Kid or doe skin tended to reflect one of the best leathers around for gloves which was white alum tanned kid leather. Buff tends to be used only when the leather is a tan or light brown colour, and is sueded in some way.
Most of the gloves are of a light tan colour with a sueded or velvet finish. There is no evidence that white tawyers (alum using glove leather tanners) like Shakespeare’s father ever dyed leather or treated it to make it brown. Equally the UK did not have kidskin, or a goat population, and the only mention I have found of kid in the historic glove books of goat leather being used in UK manufactured gloves involved a small import of Irish skins.
As far as I am aware Shakespeare’s father used deerskin, which might mean that his finer gloves were from young female skins that we would call doeskin, but whether the frequent use of this term as being a material used in Tudor gloves is really young deer seems to be very unclear from all the definitions and glossaries that we find.
In the UK we had bovine, sheep, deer, badger and dog that I am pretty sure were used in gloves. Few materials would have been allowed to waste.
The Limerick chicken skin gloves we are certain were young calves, normally unborn or aborted which might have been quite common given the level of animal husbandry that scientific knowledge at the time permitted. Today we call such skins slinks and until recently there was a big business in New Zealand tanning sheep slink skins for glove leather, mostly as a warm lining. With a sheep in New Zealand that peaked at 70 million in 1982 such natural deaths were not uncommon and having a collection of the skins made economic sense. I am sure where resources were scarce in Ireland 200 years ago it made sense to make use of them. Small, naturally thin skins with zero defects would make exquisite gloves and be surprisingly strong.
Glove leather tanners worked closely with the skinners and often the two livery companies were united or combined in some way, just as some glovers made their own leather and were called wet glovers while others bought the leather pre-tanned. Quite at what stage that transfer from tanner to glover took place requires more research; it is not a straightforward question. However, working with the skinners implies the use of sheep and deer which were not handled along with the bovine hides that went from the meat trade directly through the hands of the Leathersellers into mostly much bigger tanneries. There was a complex set of rules amongst the Leathersellers, the Curriers the Cordwainers and others regarding who was allowed to do each part of the process and sell the output. Tanneries with yards of pits were sizeable units whereas a glove shop was by comparison quite small. In the Somerset village of Wootton Basset, famous for its tannery, there was one tannery making vegetable tanned bovine cowhide but four glove makers in the middle of the 16th century. The tannery was a sizeable area behind the owners house and had a separate bark house built at some stage. As far as I can see there are no obvious remains of any of the glovers, and we have no idea whether they were all wet glovers and made their own leather or dry glovers who bought leather in.
Glossaries to the rescue
Some of the complexity of the materials used for gloves is to be found in the glossary of The Complete Costume Dictionary by Elizabeth J. Lewandowski (2011). Let us take a look at some:
Doeskin: suede-finished leather from sheep and lambskins
Dogskin: Elizabethan (1550-1625CE) to Late Georgian (1750-1790CE). Heavyweight sheepskin leather used for hunting or hawking gloves.
Dongola kid: Sheep, goat or kangaroo skin
French Kid: Fine quality kid leather
Kid Leather: Thin, soft leather made from very young milk-fed animals
Complexity, perhaps confusion, is increased by Cody Collins in Love of a Glove (1945) where below I paraphrase the explanations of the leathers:
Kid skins: taken from the finest European milk fed goats
Doe-skin: originally from female deer, but no longer procurable. Today (writing in 1945) the finest so-called doeskin leathers are taken from the baby lamb and are imported from various countries. The skins of French baby lamb are the superlative grade of doeskin for gloves. The grain leather is shaved, skived or friezed off from the body of the hide and it is then applied top a fine emery wheel to produce a soft pliable, velvety finish. (this sounds like a sueded leather, on the grain we would call a nubuck today)
Mocha: Long black-haired sheep from Africa and Asia. Originally tanned in Gloversville for mens’ gloves because of its thickness and weight. `frequently confused with doeskin. It is durable and be easily dip-dyed and brush-dyed.
Lambskin: young sheep
Cabretta: from a species of haired sheep, raised in the provinces of Brazil. Because they had horns many people thought they were a cross between a sheep and a goat. This type of skin was used for shoe leather until 1930 when it was introduced to the glove industry
Buckskin, Deerskin, Reindeer, Calfskin, Horsehide, Dogskin: Mostly heavy, durable, warm and pliable. Mostly used for men’s gloves and lot go into service men’s use.
Capeskin: named for its port of embarkation, Cape Town, South Africa, and comes from small African sheep.
This is course not a comprehensive of leather materials that are used for gloves as things like pig and peccary are frequently used, and I am currently using an excellent pair of yak gloves (tanned and made up in Finland, with the leather part tanned in Mongolia), while for the garden we have a pair of bison gloves given to me in Gloversville. The yak leather we have is soft and warm but slowly wearing out, while the bison appears indestructible,
Before I try to make sense of this I should also quote Valerie Cumming whose excellent book Gloves (1982) is much clearer and more precise on all these materials from the UK Tudor period. First of all she explains early on, in the light of a complaint by Mr Pepys on September 8th 1667 that he had been shown to have paid too much for his gloves, that French kid remained the preferred fashionable leather for town gloves despite the import duty faced by the glovers or the need to find a smuggled route for French gloves themselves. The French skins were dressed on the grain side as the skin was very high quality and blemish free. The UK skins of all types were more damaged on the surface and so were turned over and processed on the back, where with a little brushing a suede can be produced. I would add to this that the way the glove tanners worked in quite primitive conditions in their own yards process control during unhairing or dewooling was probably pretty poor, so that the grain would rarely be in a condition to use and this would encourage them to make a sueded leather or a velour or nubuck (both mean a fine suede made on the grain side).
As described in Valerie Cumming’s book we are mostly dealing with suede although some do look more like nubuck, which fits better with the term “buck” from which the word nubuck is almost certainly derived. Given the technology available in the 16th and 17th centuries making a good nubuck would be quite hard so this will probably need more research to be certain. Her brief skin type definitions are clear:
Chickenskin: lightweight leather made from the skin of unborn calves
Cordinent/cordwain: soft leather made originally in Spain, from hair sheepskins or goatskins. The term was used in England to describe home produced leathers which resembled the Spanish originals.
Doeskin: leather made from lightweight deerskins, not necessarily just does, and oil tanned.
Dogskin: heavyweight sheepskin leather used for hunting or hawking gloves.
Shammy: a soft leather initially made from chamois antelope, but later simulated with sheep and lambskins using an oil tannage and capable of being washed.
Suede: leather finished with a nap on the flesh side, a coarse finish than with a nap on the grain side.
Woodstocks; gloves made in Woodstock from the skins of fawns or does and washable.
York Tans: gloves of natural coloured suede
This clears up quite a lot but also underlines the uncertainty over the some of the terms which are loosely used by others to define the leather type used.
Valerie Cumming has worked hard to be the most precise and is renowned for her experience and knowledge in the area so her definitions will be amongst the clearest. Summing it all up what can we conclude.
Chickenskin: this appears to definitely be from unborn or still born calf skins
Doe skin: this does appear to be nearly always deerskin in a sueded form, usually oil tanned. The suede can be either on the flesh (inside) or on the grain (outside). On the outside today we call suede of this type either nubuck or velour. The gloves made for Bishop King of Lincoln in the late 19thcentury are made from deerskin nubuck. This will sometimes be termed “buff” leather.
Dogskin: I accept that in history heavyweight sheep were used. However I do know that in the UK and the US actual dog skins were important for gloves, although I have never seen any specific research. In the UK dogskins were certainly used in the Second World War to make gauntlet gloves for motorbike messenger gloves. The skins were continued to be tanned into the 1970s. For Tudor times we should stay with heavy sheep, but check as many references as possible to be sure it was not the real thing. Woodstock near Oxford used to make hawking gloves at that time and research on its industry might be worth checking.
Chamois, or Shammy: a sueded oil tanned sheepskin of some sort was used but it is not clear from material I have seen when that started. UK sheepskins have a fat layer in the middle thickness of the skins which can be split through by modern technology not available in Tudor in times. Consequently to make suede from them the grain side would have to be shaved down; with the grain off the oil penetrated easier, faster and more evenly.
York tans: were developed because the pure white tawed leather stained to easily for everyday use. Other than the Valerie Cumming’s reference I had thought they were grain rather than suede, although the ones I have seen are mostly from the 1800s. I do have reference that these were at some stage white alum tanned gloves dyed at home (or by the staff presumably) using saffron. The ones from Hexham, which I have been able to handle clearly had some vegetable tan content giving them their colour.
Sheep and goat: as we see throughout kid skins were classed as the best material for gloves. England did not have this material and the records talk of some import of goatskins from a Ireland, but not in any great volume. Kids skins, though, are not mentioned. More kid skins would have to come from overseas, in Tudor time this meaning France, Italy and Spain. Nowadays we hear little of skins from Italy, and from Spain and France it is their sheepskins which offer the best quality.
The Roquefort Story
One story worth retelling is that of Millau, the major glove centre in France. Nearby is the small town of Roquefort, famous for Its sheep milk cheese. It is a town amidst an amazing series of limestone plateaus on the top of which these sheep are grazed. To have their milk for the cheese the lambs were killed very young (a different form of husbandry has now been adopted), often before ever reaching time of grass feeding. This created a supply of small skins, all fresh and without blemish, perfect for high quality gloves. The cheese is left to mature in the huge caves within the mountains. We know that the cheese was sold in the market in Ancient Rome so the glove industry is probably more ancient even than the near 1000 year old records show.
The skins are exquisite and are clearly the foundation of the historic glove industry of Millau. They are still being used today, and while I am not in close touch with current glove manufacturing in France, Italy and Spain my sense is that the current majority use is sheepskin, with domestic skins supplemented with imported hairsheep from around the world.
The places involved over the years have been Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran etc), Indonesia and Brazil. There are additional supplies from other countries but they are small. The big populations of sheep from New Zealand and Australia have the same fat layer that the UK has, and are not suited to glove leather.
With changes in politics and other developments these have been changing fast in relevance for gloves, but that is another story. Most of course were not available in the 16th and 17th century. We end with a quote from the UK Penny Magazine from 1838.
The Penny Magazine 1838
1st, by oak-bark; 2nd, by sumach; 3rd, by alum; and 4th, by oil: these four varieties being remarkably distinguished one from another. The leather prepared by tanning with oak-bark is the hide of the ox, the calf, and the horse, all of which possess sufficient firmness to be ap plied to the manufacture of shoes, harness, and other articles requiring great strength and durability. The skins prepared by a substance called sumach are principally those of the goat and the sheep; and the. leather resulting from the process is morocco leather, for coach-linings, chair-covers, book-binding, ladies’ shoes, &c. ; roan for shoes, slippers, and common book-binding ; and skiver, an inferior leather, for hat- linings, pocket-books, work-boxes, toys, and other cheap purposes. The skins dressed in alum are principally those of the kid, the sheep, the lamb, and in some instances the calf; and the leather produced is principally employed for gloves and ladies’ shoes. Lastly, the skins dressed in oil are those of the sheep, the buck, and the doe; and the resulting leather is that of which riding-gloves and similar articles arc made, as well as the soft wash-leather, or shamoy leather, familiar to everyone.
 Haines BM, British Leather Manufacturers’ Research Association, 1957