The making of scissors and shears by hand, using traditional techniques.
|Historic area of significance||Sheffield, England & Solingen, Germany|
|Area currently practised||Sheffield|
|Origin in the UK||18th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||6-10|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0 (Ernest Wright have trained 5 people in recent years and they are now all proficient makers)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Sheffield has long been a place of metalwork and the production of high-quality, metal tools. A quarter of the city’s population was listed as metal-workers in 1379. Over the centuries, Sheffield developed into a centre of industrial research and metallurgical innovation. Skilled scientists, accompanied by their technicians, fostered an atmosphere of experimentation, leading to the introduction of stainless steel and modern furnaces.
The craft of making scissors and shears by hand was born in this context. By the 19th century there were 60 steel scissor companies in Sheffield. Workshops and outworkers supported each other, with some specialising in different stages of production. Tens of thousands of men worked to craft products that would be shipped throughout the British Empire and beyond. In all corners of the globe, ‘Made in Sheffield’ became synonymous with high-quality, handmade scissors and shears.
However, the rise of cheap, replaceable goods and a shift towards mass production throughout the 1980s, meant that by 1990 there were just two scissor-making companies left. Today, there’s a renewed interest in handcrafted and supreme-quality steel scissors. Thanks to this interest, Sheffield-made scissors are once again on the rise.
There are various techniques used in the production of handmade scissors and shears. All of them require skill, expertise and years of learning.
After scissors have been forged and hardened, the surface of the metal remains rough. To produce extremely smooth handles, scissor blades go through a process called flexible grinding. Different tools and belts and grinders of varying hardness are used to shape the steel and remove and burrs from the metal. Flexible grinding was once a common and skilled occupation, but now it is only practised by a few.
The blades of a pair of scissors are curved, so they always make contact regardless of the position they’re in. This way, there’s a consistent amount of pressure to ensure an even and straight cut. It takes skill to marry two blades together because handmade blades are never one hundred per cent the same. This is when master putter-togetherers work their magic. It’s a process of a little nudge here and a tweak there, to turn two blades into a pair of scissors.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Globalisation of the cutlery and steel industries has reduced the size of the craft. About 30 years ago there were approximately twenty companies in Sheffield making scissors but they have gradually closed. Nowadays, artisanal producers rely on making a high-end/niche product because the market for volume is saturated with mass producers of lower-quality scissors. Consumers are looking to move away from disposable items and towards products for life, but it can be hard to develop new products and markets. Increased costs for materials, equipment and utilities are putting pressure on scissors-makers’ budgets and pricing strategies. Key materials such as oil, card for packaging, and steel have greatly risen in price. The Covid-19 pandemic had the ‘silver lining’ of driving increased public interest in crafting at home. Enthusiasts have eagerly consumed content about crafts and developed a greater appetite to purchase scissors and shears.
- Training issues: There is no formal training – all training is done in-house. It takes up to five years for an apprentice to learn scissor making.
- Recruitment issues: It’s challenging to find new apprentices and people with the right work ethic. The ‘craftsman’ mindset is disappearing and less people want to spend all day making quality goods. Retaining apprentices is difficult and companies lose an investment of time and money if they leave.
- Business issues: Increasing bureaucracy for small businesses such as insurance, health and safety, pensions, electrical certificates etc., take up the time of the limited number of staff in a small business, which would otherwise be invested in business development. Ernest Wright has seen a drop in European sales, as well as currency problems, resulting from Brexit. The weak pound has driven an increase in the proportion of orders coming from other anglophone countries.
- Personnel issues: The scissors trade has an ageing workforce. Against the backdrop of Covid-19, this has created staffing challenges for scissors-makers, as the most at-risk employees have sometimes needed to work from home in order to stay safe. Ernest Wright has moved to protect its workers’ wellbeing by implementing an employee health scheme.
Craftspeople currently known
Businesses employing two or more individuals:
- Ernest Wright – based in Sheffield. The business was founded in 1902, but went into liquidation in 2018 following the death of Nick Wright. All assets including the Ernest Wright and Kutrite brand names, the original machinery, tools and stock have been bought by new investors. The original personnel continue to produce handmade scissors and shears.
- William Whiteley & Sons – based in Sheffield. Have been in business since 1760. Have a workforce of twelve, four of whom have unique skills. Make scissors for industry and retail and for highly specialised/bespoke uses, and make for their own and other brands.
- Grace Horne, Sheffield