If Vermont were a dart board, the small town of Randolph would be its bullseye – as right smack dab in the center of the state as a town can possibly be. Here, the railroad follows the White River as it snakes southeast across the state. The tracks cut across the north end of Randolph, carrying trains on a gentle curve southward past the former creamery that since the late 1950s has been the home of Vermont Glove.
“We occupied several buildings around town before buying the milk plant,” says Vermont Glove owner Sam Hooper. “The trains would come through and pick up the milk and head south to make deliveries in Boston.”
Sam’s voice is tinged with that high New England tonality of clipped -ings and long ahhhs. He’s young – from a new generation as comfortable with an iPhone as they are with hundred-year-old dye presses. He came into the glove business by a combination of hard work, luck, and attention to detail. It is – pun fully intended – a perfect fit.
“I grew up one town over in Brookfield,” he says, recalling his circuitous path to glove-making. “My brother has a dairy, and I grew up working on and around farms – I have a little beef homestead too. You work a lot, wear gloves a lot. You learn a lot about what makes a good glove without really realizing it.”
After blowing out fingers and losing the stitching in countless pairs of subpar gloves, Sam started wearing Vermont Gloves – at the time branded as Green Mountain Glove.
“I was just floored by the quality of the product,” he says. “You fall in love with them the more you wear them. And if you misplace one,” he says, pausing with a half-smile bordering on distress, “well, it kinda keeps you up at night.”
Daily use led to a fascination with the durability, functionality, and craftsmanship clearly apparent in this hundred-year-old company. When he realized the company was headquartered in his back yard, Sam arranged a visit. He developed a friendship with third-generation owner Kurt Haupt.
“Kurt was getting ready to figure out what’s next – whether it’s close the doors, pass it on, or sell it,” says Sam. “Those were tough decisions in his mind, but we found some synergy between what he’d kept going for years, and what I thought we could become.”
Sam worked as an apprentice, learning the process from start to finish, working the machines and learning how to judge the gauge and quality of goatskin leather. Along the way his fascination with the quality and craftsmanship developed into a passion. He’s a wellspring of knowledge about the history of the company, and how attention to detail not only sets the quality standard for Vermont Gloves – it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
“Initially the company made silk ladies riding gloves,” he says, beginning a history lessons that captures a century of manufacturing painted against the 20th century history of the United States. “Europe really controlled the market share, and they struggled to get a foothold. Eventually the bank foreclosed on them.”
The bank hired Richard Haupt to continue running the business. He eventually bought the company from the bank and shifted production away from silk gloves into heavy duty work gloves for electrical linemen.
“When we were growing through the forties, fifties, and sixties, that was a big period of growth in the utility industry across the country,” Sam says. “The electric companies were getting power out to rural America.”
As the industry grew and added jobs, so too grew Vermont Gloves as they perfected designs that offered comfort, durability – and most importantly safety.
“You’re talking about twenty thousand volts,” says Sam. “Our gloves were fitted perfectly so line workers could put on a non-conductive rubber glove and slide that into our leather lineman gloves. The leather protected that rubber insert from scuffing and scratching. The American utility worker has been – and still is – our bread and butter, and it really invigorates us and creates our culture of quality in the fact that we’re making gloves that protect lives.”
With the safety of line workers literally in their hands, Vermont Gloves developed a reputation for attention to detail. Those details translate all through the Vermont Glove line – from heavy duty linemen gloves all the way to gardening gloves. They’re dexterous enough for detail work, and warm enough to fight the chill on the ski slopes.
The life of a Vermont Glove begins when thousands of feet of goatskin hides arrive at their Randolph manufacturing facility each month. The hides are gauged for thickness and inspected for imperfections. Each hide is hand-cut to remove any imperfections, and the company minimizes waste by using different thickness of hide for different parts of the glove.
“The hides are stamped on a dye, either a half-dozen or a dozen at a time,” says Sam. “Depending on the style, there’s eight to twelve pieces that go into a glove.”
Employees ensure that each piece stretches the right way to insure gloves will remain true to size, and then they are moved upstairs to a light-filled room where they go through a second round of quality inspections.
“When you’re cutting hundreds of pairs of gloves at a time it can be tedious,” he says. “We recheck them upstairs in the natural light – you get a whole different perspective, and slight imperfections show up that you can’t see downstairs.”
Then, using time-honored techniques, each piece is sewn together to form the body of the glove, with stitching on the outside to ensure durability as well as comfort. Each glove fits together like a puzzle. Individual pieces that seem incongruous with the normal shape of a hand suddenly become the pointer finger, thumb, or the back of a palm. The finished gloves are pulled onto silver hand-shaped electric heaters that help form and shape the pliable goatskin leather.
“That’s one last opportunity for quality assurance,” says Sam, “before we ship them out the door.”
It’s a common – but sometimes underrecognized – tenet that you don’t know what you don’t know. If all you’ve ever worn are mass-produced gloves that you purchase for twenty bucks, it’s hard to understand the difference a hundred years of manufacturing excellence makes in something as modest and utilitarian as a pair of gloves.
“It’s a real product,” says Sam. “You put it on – there’s immediate comfort not having the seams on the inside of the glove. The goatstkin form fits to your hand. You get them wet and they bounce right back to their original softness. It’s those little things that add up to quality, and we’re proud of this product.”
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As Airstream travels the country in search of unique Round Trip destinations, we keep our eye out for dedicated craftspeople who are passionate about manufacturing quality products. Like like the hundreds of production associates who hand-make Airstream travel trailers and touring coaches in our Jackson Center, Ohio manufacturing facility, they are committed to their craft – and to living their dreams. These are their stories.