by David Thomas March 08, 2022
Plotting a resurgence for an endangered heritage craft
About a ninety-minute drive north of Barcelona, David Pallarès looks around what used to be a scissor and knife town. He still feels the rich history in Solsona but he has long since realized he and his craft scissors are now pretty much on their own.
Other industry towns have experienced the same rise and fall. Outside of Solsona, similar communities evolved centuries ago in Sheffield (England), Thiers (France), Solingen (Germany), Premana (Italy), and Sakai, Ono and Seki (Japan).
Spain’s craft blade manufacturing center that dates back to the 16th century. Toledo’s steel- and sword-making prowess made it more famous in military history. But Solsona developed a more diversified consumer craft industry. It reached its peak in the 18th century, explains Pallarès, and it’s been shrinking ever since. There were a dozen businesses at the start of the last century and today there is just one, Cuchillería Pallarès.
In the Middle Ages, scissor and blade towns grew in areas where there was access to iron ore, to forests for wood/charcoal and ample river power to assist in steel production and the manufacture of swords, cutlery and tools like scissors. As a specialty, steel was expensive and the high artisanal skills of the workers made these communities thrive and prosper, says Pallarès.
“It was a very knowledge-intensive craft and an evolving one. That helps explain why a large pool of specialized labour grew alongside the industry workshops,” he. says. For example, the scissors trade made the role of one assembly tradesperson – modestly called the “putter-togetherer” – a five-year apprenticeship program
From start to finish, there is a painstaking series of steps from forging with iron and a mix of hardeners, to casting, drilling, cutting, grinding, more hardening, sanding, polishing and custom sharpening to make a perfect pair. Today, the result could cost consumers $150 or more, compared to less than a tenth of that for a cold-stamped, poor-quality pair.
The cheap cost of lower quality scissors has taken its toll on small craft producers. The price of high-quality steel and lengthy processes of skilled hand labour has forced most firms to shutter their businesses. For those that continue, there is a dramatic shortage in attracting artisans who will take the years necessary to master their craft.
In its heyday, Sheffield was home to about 70 scissor-making companies. There were many more in cutlery, which had at least 40,000 workers. By the 1990s, there were two traditional scissor makers left and one of them, Ernest Wright, took a few runs into receivership and looked set to fold.
And yet as awareness of the quality of handmade scissors grows, the future looks a little brighter. At Ernest Wright, its brush with corporate death caught the public’s attention, and acted like a lightning rod for awareness of the endangered heritage crafts. Consumers got a wake up call.
Sheffield has been England’s home to the stainless steel industries since the 14th century and the Wright family had been working the trade for several hundred years before Ernest founded his firm in 1907. In the 2010s, the firm struggled and lost its family head but their plight ended up attracting a lot of public attention, amplified by a short film that ran on the BBC and went viral in 2014.
It did, however, help save the firm because new owners got caught up in the story after viewing the video and came to the rescue. Co-owner Paul Jacobs, from the Netherlands, says he fell in love with the magic of traditional scissor-making and intends to keep the firm’s traditional practices alive. “This is a living, breathing connection with the history of an amazing craft,” he offers. And it doesn’t hurt to have the global reach of the Internet on your side to share your story.
The future is looking brighter, says David Pallarès. His brand has more traction with consumers for his knives, and, as with Whiteley and Wright in Sheffield, he says interest seems to be growing for scissors. He and his cousin represent the third generation, building out the reach of the firm from its birth in 1907 as a local business.
Pallarès Solsona has expanded its market in Catalonia and into the wider European market and the Americas. Pallarès says the investment has been in manufacturing and production and not so much in marketing. The brand name, already strong with knives, is now selling a lot of scissors as well.
“People keep coming more and more because the scissors are done well,” he says. “They might have bought a single knife a long time ago and they now want a full set. Or they love the knife and want to try the scissors. They come in and know what they want. I don’t have to sell them. They sell themselves.”
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