In the last five years, the HEMA community has seen a veritable explosion of new manufacturers, suppliers, and producers of equipment. In fact, there are currently more HEMA-specific gloves on the market than one has fingers to be protected! This is a wonderful state of affairs, as practitioners have plenty of choice, both in terms of which gear to buy, and from which retailer to buy it.
No longer do people need to make their own equipment. This is incredibly valuable for people who have two left thumbs (figuratively speaking), or who possess little skill with tools and materials, or who simply don’t have the time or energy it takes to produce good quality homemade equipment. Of course, some people will always be perfectly capable of making their own equipment, and doing so to a high quality. However, not everyone is in this position.
One of the other major benefits of equipment being available off the shelf is that the community can make a frank assessment of its quality, in terms of durability and production, and also how well it protects the wearer, or how it handles as a sword. Because off the shelf equipment will generally be consistent across different batches (and if it is not, this indicates a major problem!), people can write reviews, knowing that these will be helpful for other people. Also, people can see something they like at an event, then place an order for one later, because they know that they will receive something very similar (if not identical) to the item they saw and handled in person.
Similarly, event organisers and club instructors can provide lists of recommended items to buy from recommended manufacturers or suppliers. Items that fall apart consistently, or that are simply not protective enough, can be eliminated from these lists. Suppliers who take money but then fail to deliver orders can be shunned, although there are relatively few producers or resellers of standard off the shelf items who do business like this.
Standards can be set to different levels of safety. For example, it is quite possible to say that for light sparring, practitioners need only a CEN level 1 fencing mask and something like the PBT light HEMA gloves. For more intense fencing, it is quite possible to say that practitioners need a CEN level 2 fencing mask from a reputable manufacturer, something like the SPES Axel Pettersson jacket (or an equivalent from companies such as Neymann Fencing or PBT), and well padded gloves like the Sparring Gloves (or equivalents such as the Neymann Fencing or St Mark gloves). Then, if someone turns up with equipment that is not on the list, the potential risks can be seen immediately, and the person responsible for the activity can take action to deal with it.
A common problem with homemade equipment is that it does not provide as much cover as it really should. For example, jackets or gambesons might not protect the armpit, or gloves might not protect the sides of the fingers. If it does provide suitable coverage, then fantastic. But people who decide to work with homemade equipment that “is good enough” for their own normal practices, in an effort to save money on buying off the shelf items, run the risk of receiving injuries when their homemade equipment eventually fails.
Having had quite significant experience with homemade equipment over the years, I am quite prepared to say that some people are superb craftsmen and can make equipment that is both exquisite and entirely functional. However, I also feel compelled to say that some people are just not cut out for making equipment, and it would be much safer for them just to buy off the shelf gear.
My message to individuals is that if you don’t possess the right skills, knowledge, or materials, then you run the risk of injury by choosing to make your own equipment. Just buy equipment off the shelf from a reputable company, and you can gauge your level of safety easily and accurately.
My message to club instructors and to event organisers is that off the shelf items are your friends, because you can test such items and decide whether or not they are good enough for your activities. Don’t feel compelled to accept equipment just because someone spent hours making it. If it is not good enough, don’t allow it. By the same token, feel free to make exceptions for high-quality homemade gear that has clearly been produced by an expert, that offers sufficient protection and functionality. But be prepared to say “no” to homemade items that just aren’t good enough.
 Off the top of my head, and not an exhaustive list: Sparring Gloves (mitten, hoof, fingered); SPES (light and heavy); Neymann Fencing (Thokk, lobster, Inigo Montoya); St Mark (Koning); Red Dragon Armoury; WMA Shop; PBT(light). This list names 12 sets of gloves, in production at the date of writing this article, with only 10 digits needing protection. And there are yet more gloves on the market now!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.