Dents: the art of making leather gloves

Dents glovemakers have been in business for almost 250 years. Emma Clegg talks to CEO Deborah Moore about the gloving business, how to stay market relevant and about creating leather gloves for kings, queens and James Bond

The record of one ceremony at Oxford in 1566 notes that Queen Elizabeth I wore a beautiful bejewelled and embroidered pair of gauntlets, and that she pulled off and put on her gloves over one hundred times so that all might enjoy her graceful hand movements.” (Jay Ruckel)

I am in the museum room within Dents glovemakers in Warminster and I am looking at Elizabeth I’s coronation glove. This was one of a pair of gloves worn at her coronation at Westminster Abbey on 15 January 1559. Made from white alum-tawed sueded leather with handsewn prix seams (seams with two edges showing), the gauntlet is embroidered with silver threads, purl and sequins and silk satin inserts depicting orb, flowers and leaves. The white fingers are indeed long and elegant.

The coronation gloves of Queen Elizabeth II (left) and George VI (middle), both made by Dents, and that of Queen Elizabeth I from Dents’ collection (right)

This glove is part of Dents substantial collection, which also includes the duplicate coronation gloves for George V and George VI and the original Elizabeth II glove, on loan from the Worshipful Company of Glovers. The late Queen’s glove is more substantial than Elizabeth I’s; also using white leather, it has an elaborate, more angular gauntlet embroidered with golden metallic threads. This glove was made by Dents for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953. The white leather glove was worn to protect the royal hand until the coronation ring was put on the Queen’s finger.

Dents was set up in 1777 by John Dent in a small wooden house in Wood Street, Worcester, then the centre of the gloving industry, and the company quickly became synonymous with English-made luxury gloves. In this era gloves were in demand from all sections of society, used as protection in wartime, and for work, fashion, special occasions, and for business and formal wear.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Dents built factories across Europe and opened sales offices and warehouses in cities such as Paris and New York and the company continues to supply the world’s leading retail stores, now exporting to 27 countries all over the world. All Dents gloves are made from the highest quality ethically sourced leather and are stitched by artisans, ensuring that they last for decades.

The glove factory itself, which employs 14 specialist workers, feels established and old-style with its traditional raised glove-making machines, allowing the gloves to be pulled and shaped; piled-up boxes of sewing cotton reels; and a large collection of glove irons in different sizes for shaping and stretching. A collection of old machines in storage is used to repair the machines whenever necessary, simply because there are no modern versions. I am shown the main hand pattern for a glove (like a stencil), called the ‘trank’ – this is from where the leather for each glove is cut with leather shears.

There is a real sense of wanting to get it right and to make the best-quality product in our factory. It’s a real craft industry…

Dents, now based in Warminster, use three types of leather for its gloves. Hairsheep from North Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria is known for its great strength and natural elasticity. Deerskin leather also has great strength and elasticity but it has more of a pebbled appearance. This is one of the heavier and hard-wearing leathers and is favoured for men’s gloves. Finally peccary leather from the South American wild boar is rare and luxurious; considered to be the ‘king of leather’, it has a textured surface, and is very supple. A pair of durable peccary gloves will last for years, and this is reflected in the price, a pair costing up to £900 retail.

Peccary is a notoriously difficult leather to work with. Dents CEO Deborah Moore tells me, “Sewing a pair of gloves is difficult because you are sewing with a stretchy material. You put two pieces of leather together for your fingers and one bit can stretch more than the other. Each skin is also different, so you must use the same skin for a pair of gloves – you can’t have a right hand made from one skin and the left hand from another.”

The traditional roles, long established in gloving, with men as leather cutters and women as glove sewers, are maintained in the factory, because leather cutting is a very physical role. In fact Dents, operating for almost 250 years, is a business built on tradition. Deborah tells me that a high proportion of the company’s employees have worked there for years. “When people come into the gloving business they either leave very quickly or they stay for the rest of their life. We have staff who have been here for up to 60 years, and staff whose parents worked here.

“It’s because it’s a quality product – somebody once said to me you don’t get leather off a roll. Leather comes from an animal and so every skin is different. There is a real sense of wanting to get it right and to make the best-quality product in our factory. It’s a real craft industry with gloves made by artisans, and Dents are one of only two leather glove factories left in the country.

“We also have these long-term relationships with our suppliers. In Japan we’ve had the same distributor for over 75 years and we’re now dealing with the third generation of that family. This is what the business is built on.”

Deborah joined Dents at the invitation of owner Robert Yentob 33 years ago at a time when things needed reassessing. “My husband and I, who were both from a retail background, joined in 1990, when Dents were producing briefcases and ladies’ handbags. At that time the company was selling what it could make rather than making what it could sell. Our focus then was that it’s not a sale until it’s checked out at retail stage. You have got to provide what the high street wants, so we went back to basics and changed everything. And we’re now a very focused company; we export to 27 countries all over the world and our internet sales form 38% of the business.”

Now the business focuses entirely on its core business, gloves and leather accessories, but the nature of the demand for leather gloves has also shifted with the times: “The market has changed dramatically in the time I’ve been here. When I came into the business in 1990 we were producing 65% women’s gloves and 35% men’s gloves and now that is reversed. Our export has increased dramatically, particularly in Asia.”

Dents have a modern day as well as a traditional profile – the company continues to produce the driving leather gloves worn by Daniel Craig as James Bond, as well as supplying a large number of period-style leather gloves for TV shows and films such as Downton Abbey, The Crown and Bridgerton.

So is there, we wonder, another coronation glove in the pipeline? This information is currently under wraps – but suffice it to say that there will be a coronation glove for King Charles III, and it will follow in the family line of coronation gloves.