Glove making in Centralia
Nick George / The Chronicle Dennis Knapp shapes a glove at the Geier Glove Co. in Centralia. The glove is heated on a hand-shaped iron and then worked into perfect form.

The heady smell of leather filled the James Churchill Glove Co. warehouse in downtown Centralia as employees assembled different segments of gloves last week.

"A lot of people don't realize how many pieces there are to a glove," said Mike Churchill, one of the company's owners.

The company's 13 workers cut, sew, iron and ship an average of 144 pairs of gloves a day to western stores, implement companies and motorcycle dealerships across the country, according to Churchill.

The art of glove making hasn't changed too much over the years, but the challenge of discounted foreign imports probably wasn't on the mind of Churchill's great-grandfather when he started the Centralia business in 1895.

"I hate to think of how many glove makers there are in China. Imports don't do us any good," Churchill said. "You have to find a different niche in the marketplace."

IT TAKES ABOUT 15 minutes for one pair to pass through the assembly process, Churchill said.

Gloves are cut from the stretched hide of either cattle, elk, deer or bison, with a cookie-cutter-like metal pattern. Workers, such as Onalaskan Beth Lawrence, then match and sew the two pieces together.

"Down along the fingers is the hardest part," said Lawrence, a 31-year veteran of the Churchill Glove Co.

Lawrence estimated she closes up between 60 and 70 gloves a day.

"But I'm not the speediest sewer," she said.

The gloves, which are sewn inside out, are flipped right-side-in by a machine.

"If you time it right, it's like a butterfly," Churchill said of an air-compressed turning machine.

To remove wrinkles from the finished product, gloves are heated on hand-sized hot irons, which range from size six to 13. Depending on the type of leather used, the irons are heated to between 250 to 400 degrees.

"Things don't really change," Churchill said, "It's the same patterns, same leather."

Churchill, 41, joined the company full-time after college in the late 1980s.

"Going through college, I wasn't planning on doing this," he said. "I think part of it was that Dad needed a little help."

Churchill's two other brothers, Andy and Brady, as well as his father, Niles, officially own the company.

"It's a family tradition," he said.

Aside from some added safety measures, there haven't been huge advances in glove-making equipment, Churchill said.

"I don't know how long some of these (machines) have been around. I'm sure you can't call a store and ask for one of these," he said of the turning machine.

Niles Churchill is known to stop in and use a 1968 sewing machine that relies on a wax threading technique, creating a chain stitch through the fingers of a glove. It's a type of stitch that the company has slowly replaced for a more secure lock stitch, Churchill said.

"With a chain stitch, you can unravel the whole glove if you get the right stitch loose," he said.

But the cotton thread ran through hot wax helps seal the stitch, according to Churchill.

Chain stitching is a style that many imports still use, he said.

Imports' ability to cheaply sell gloves has affected business, Churchill said.

"I'll get a call, maybe from someone from Texas, asking how much a certain glove is," he said. "And after I tell him, you'll hear a pause. He'll want me to go lower … because he's looking at an import, and I just can't."

Imported gloves can retail between $10 to $15, whereas a Churchill pair will sell for $30 to $40, he said.

"In that respect, things have changed," he said.

DALE AND KATHY SCOTT, who own the Geier Glove Co. a few blocks away on Main Street, agree that the tough competition is with imports.

"We (compete) by maintaining quality and customer service," said Kathy Scott.

The Scotts purchased the company from the Geier family in 1984.

"I worked for Weyerhaeuser for 10 years, and I wanted to work for myself," Dale Scott said.

At the time, Kathy Scott was employed at an accounting firm nearby and heard about the Geiers' desire to sell.

"And the rest is history," Kathy Scott said.

The Scotts' operation is similar to Churchill's, with 16 workers assembling leather gloves, made from cowhide, elk, goat, deer, bison and even kangaroo skin, that are sold to stores across the country.

"They're work gloves mostly, and some rodeo," Dale Scott said.

Like the Churchill company, all gloves are sold wholesale. However, the Geier Company sells a few "seconds," or gloves with slight flaws, at its Main Street location.

"It's all the retail we do," Kathy Scott said.

To keep busy during the summer slump, the Scotts started selling their gloves to western, tourist-themed shops in national parks, she said.

According to Churchill, the founding Geier members, Art and Henry, left the Churchill company in the late 1920s to start their own glove-making business.

"The story has it that we gave them a couple of sewing machines to get started," Churchill said.

The friendship between the two companies continues today.

When Churchill first started full-time, he said, he needed advice about the exporting process.

"I talked to Dale, and he got me organized on how to do it," he said.

According to Churchill, all exported deer and elk skins have to be inspected by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, costing $55 per shipment.

"And they want to know what type of deer it is. Not if it's whitetail or mule deer, but the scientific name," said Churchill, recalling an incident when a shipment of gloves got held up in Japan in the late 1980s.

"It's another thing we have to deal with," he said.

Robin McGinnis covers business issues for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8231, or by e-mail at rmcginnis@chronline.com.

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