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by David Thomas September 05, 2022

The fancy tradition of embroidery scissors

Who started making ornate scissors? What are the different regional traditions? And are fancy scissors really more feminine?

We at Ciselier cannot be the only ones asking these questions. The thing is, we are constantly amazed by how little has been written on the history of these amazing objects. So, we do a lot of digging, and we like to share what we discover.

Alpen Petite Stork Embroidery Scissors

For starters, all you need to do is go to a museum to see evidence of ancient cutting tools that range from bluntly crude to embellished.  We suspect there have always been fancy scissors, but they obviously got fancier long after the basics of the Bronze Age.

The human urge to embellish is deep-rooted

Scissors have been around for at least three thousand years in some form. And whether in modern times or a few thousand years BC, you can’t stop skilled craftspeople from working a little ornate form into their function.

WASA huhnerbein embroidery scissors

Like anything designed, scissors have changed with the fashions; they simply got fancier as the centuries went by, driven by advances in craftsmanship and a human passion for luxury and creativity in the finer things. The tie-in has been closely aligned with periods of flourish such as the Baroque and fashion design in the 1700-1800s.

READ: Where did all the craft scissor makers go?

Today, there are artisans who get really fancy with designs, but the most common scissor type that gets decorative attention is embroidery. So, does that make fancy scissors a female thing? Maybe, but we have a lot of interest in Stork embroidery scissors from men as well as women. It could be gifts for the females in their lives – but we assure you, men are also into embroidery. (More on that in a future post, so keep an eye on our Instagram feed.)

What does scissor design have in common with churches?

Some amateur scissor experts definitely buy into the ornate design as a feminization aesthetic that helped drive toolcraft to make the leap into the realm of fine art.

Scissors carved into the facade of Eglise Saint-Bonaventure, in Lyons, France

In his book Scissors, Massimiliano Mandel traces the evolution of medieval scissor design against the broader trends in architecture and design, including influences from the Catholic church, the Middle East and the art of calligraphy. And he also sees a major influence in courtship and the beauty of the “fairer sex”.

“The first mention of scissors dates back to the Romanesque period, in the statutes of the craft guild for scissor-makers, one of the many associations of artisans founded in that period,” Mandel writes (in his now out-of-print book, published in 1990).

READ: Meet the Makers. Ciselier takes you to Solingen, Sheffield and Premana

“The love of pure unadorned construction that characterizes Romanesque architecture is reflected in the predilection for simple scissors design with no decorative elements to distinguish them from previous examples. Only at the end of the Romanesque period, between the 11th and 12th centuries, can one begin to notice greater attention being paid to the shape and quality of scissors, partly due to the development of relations with Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean.

“Indeed, as the art of calligraphy spread throughout the Islamic world and scissors with concave blades used to cut sheets of paper became a necessary part of the calligrapher’s equipment, more refined models began to appear with streamlined blades engraved or damascened.” 

fancy engraved scissors from Solingen

In addition to engravement, these “refined models” might have had hand-ground designs on the handles or blades, gold plating or inlaid pearls and precious stones. Given the minimal space for sculpting and embellishment, artisans adopted the practice of using a black metallic alloy called niello for effect. (Nielo was also used in adding decorative beauty to more manly steel creations, especially sword blades.)

I got gold scissors in my ‘Love Box’

The Renaissance period saw a taste for consumer luxury drive artisans to create scissors that were at least as much about show as their ability to cut things. And later, the Industrial Revolution broadened the market and drove the novelty market even further.

Carolyn Meacham, a U.S. antiques dealer writing for collectors, traces the explosion of scissor-making that included pairs with birds, animals, human characters, flowers, buildings and other depictions. 

READ: Is it really bad luck to give scissors as a gift?

“English steel scissors were mostly simple and elegant in form from the late 18th Century until around 1835,” Meacham writes in a 2006 newsletter account of antique scissors history. Then, for about 40 years, the makers seemed to be trying to outdo each other to create ornate examples.”

Fancy scissors are incredible pieces of art. And as things of beauty, they also became part of gifting rituals in courtship. Scissors, Mandel writes, are a “delicate testimony to the development of feminine taste and also a testament paid to the style and sensitivity of the fairer sex by men.” 

“Indeed,” he offers, “a potential suitor sending a ‘Love Box’ to a lady of rank in the 14th Century would be sure to include a pair of scissors in a leather sheath, an accessory of Muslim origin. It was in this century that scissors began to acquire their typically feminine connotations which … they have retained throughout their history.”

Are those connotations still valid? Well, today’s most popular ornate scissor design is the Stork and it’s primarily used by the embroidery community, though they come in all kinds of sizes and you could put them to work in a variety of tasks. It’s also common to find embroidery scissors that don’t have animal motifs but carry a lot of intricate metal lacework on the handles.

At Ciselier, our main mission is ensuring that the endangered heritage craft of artisanal scissors finds its feet again and enjoys a renaissance. But, much as we love clean lines, smooth curves and the gleam of unembellished quality steel, you can include us in the camp that would love to have more ornate decoration as well. Bring back the fancy!

RELATED: Did they really use Stork scissors to cut umbilical cords?

VIEW: Embroidery scissors available now from Ciselier

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