Historic skills at their fingertips

Mastering a craft is a skill to be savoured and France does a great job of protecting its most skilled workers, those who transform simple materials into something that becomes... simply desirable.

29 March 2017

Since 2015 a law recognises and, by extension, protects, these métiers d’art, which in English approximates to mastercrafts. The National Institute for Métiers d’Art says master craftsmen and women share three characteristics:

- The use of complex skills and knowledge to transform a material;
- The production of objects, either singly or in small series, of an artistic character; and
- The work of a professional with a complete mastery of the techniques of their craft.

In numbers, the métiers d’art total 281 separate crafts with more than 38,000 businesses in 16 categories.

There are 1,000 different groups offering a range of training courses and qualifications in order to protect the crafts and ensure their transmission to future generations.

This year we will be spotlighting a selection of métiers d’art, picking different ones to set out the skills and training needed to become a master practitioner, and focusing on the work of one master craftsman in that field.
If you are seeking to make professional use of your creative skills, we hope you will find inspiration in these pages. This month we feature one of the less-common crafts, ganterie or glove-making, which is starting a slow revival
and where traditional methods developed in Saint-Julien, Haute-Vienne; Grenoble, Isère, and Millau, Averyron, are still to the fore.

LOCATED in Millau, Aveyron, Maison Fabre is in what was a centre for glove-making in the Middle Ages because of the kids and lambs needed for the leather could be reared easily. Master glove-maker Etienne Fabre founded the company in 1924: cutting the leather for the gloves with his brother, and sending it out to seamstresses for stitching. A few years later he transformed the family home into a workshop, where the skill has been passed down from generation to generation.

Maison Fabre’s current associate director, Olivier Fabre, is the great-grandson of the company’s founder and says: “My earliest memory was of the smell of the glove workshop”. A former journalist, he was delighted when he was asked to
join the family business: “I became the guardian of a tradition, my family’s heritage”. He sees glove-making as an “alchemy” between creativity and skilled manual work and is optimistic for the future:
“Fashion is putting gloves back into the spotlight, and the press is talking about them more.”

He is fiercely proud not only of the quality of their gloves, but of their eco credentials as they are made to last and the animals are local and have been humanely and organically raised. Alongside this, the company is making strides
towards being able to recycle leather off-cuts and by selling to a national market, avoids international transport miles. Despite finely-crafted gloves finding growing popularity, the number of craft glove-makers in France has been sliding for some time – at one time Millau alone had 70,000 in the sector – and Mr Fabre sees passing on the skills and knowledge of his trade as a priority.

The market is growing but he said “our first difficulty lies in identifying suitable candidates to take up glove-making”. So, the timing could not be better for someone to take it up. Typically, people train first in leather working and then
learn the skills to make gloves.

Asked what advice he would give to those interested, he said they should head for Millau. Not only does Maison Fabre train people to cut and stitch gloves in its own workshop there, while also working with Ensad school of decorative arts
in Paris, but because of the town’s history it is also possible to find out more about what he calls an “inspiring craft” there.

Workshop-based training courses are also available across the spectrum of leather trades through the department of Aveyron’s Leatherwork Hub. Making gloves starts with choosing leather, dyeing it, preparing and stretching it, cutting the passe de gants for the hand shape and the gussets between fingers, then fitting the pieces to make the glove shape, stitching together, adding the lining then, finally, fitting the gloves on a heated metal mould to smooth them.

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