by David Thomas August 27, 2022
In the lore of heritage craft scissors, William Whiteley holds a special place. First off, this Sheffield, England-based maker of blades has absolutely amazing historical chops. Over the years, it has also been behind a considerable amount of industry innovation, including the introduction of the tailoring sidebent design and some more modern breakthroughs.
Incorporated in 1760 and today with around 20 employees, Whiteley has owners who can trace descent back 11 generations. We’re talking scissor royalty here, and the direct link is Sally Ford, née Whiteley, and today co-director of the firm along with her husband Jeremy. The Fords were kind enough to host us on a recent visit to their facilities in Sheffield, where we had the chance to observe their heritage craft scissor making in-person.
For a little context, scissors have been around for a few thousand years, but the craft as we know it is rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century. In an industry that has seen constant consolidation and mergers over the centuries, the Whiteley lineage is impressive. Sally Ford describes the firm’s storied provenance in the nearby river ponds of White Lea at the top of the Forge Dam:
“The story passed down the family is that an ancestor of mine began making scissors in an area called White Lea, with a small river running through it which was dammed to make a forging pond. Forging ponds were bodies of water whose pressure drove a water wheel and also a forging hammer or two, or three….. and some grinding wheels.”
Founder William Whiteley moved his firm into the Sheffield area in 1787. Sheffield has been England’s center of iron smelting for almost a thousand years, evolving into the steel industry for manufacturing of cutlery, scissors and knives. The town, located about 65 kilometers east of Manchester in south Yorkshire, played a central role in the Industrial Revolution during the 1800s when the broader cutlery trade (which included scissors and knives) leveraged dramatic advances in stainless and crucible steel technologies. Today, just two firms are still making handmade, traditional scissors but they are keeping the heritage craft alive. One is Whiteley and the other is Ernest Wright.
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In 1840, Whiteley’s was granted a Royal Warrant for its scissors. The firm further cemented its prestigious reputation 35 years later, when it acquired Thomas Wilkinson & Son, another scissor maker which had been appointed Manufacturers of Scissors in Ordinary to her Majesty Queen Victoria and Cutlers to H.R.H. Prince Albert.
The Wilkinson brand, which Whiteley continues to leverage as part of its production of about 250 different cutting implements, is legendary among tailors; their shears are prized possessions on Saville Row. The reason? Wilkinson developed a design, called the “sidebent”, which bent the bows (that’s scissor speak for the handles) of the scissor to point up. That single but ingenious design tweak made it possible to rest the bottom blade on a surface while cutting. Tailor shears can get big and heavy, so this patented design added a level of precision and stability in making clean cuts on fabric.
With the sidebent, Wilkinson, Whiteley explains, essentially “invented the blueprint for every pair of dressmaking and tailors’ shears you see today.”
Whiteley’s more recent innovation involves finding solutions to cut things designed not to be cuttable. We’re talking carbon fibre for Formula 1 racing cars and, in a particularly tall challenge – creating blades that can cut Kevlar, a material used in bullet-proof vests.
The company tapped a Kickstarter in 2017 on the latter venture and worked in tandem with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield. The challenge to be solved was to find a way to make a clean cut of the fibre when it was spun onto spools during manufacture. Kevlar makers had trouble cutting the thread safely and quickly. Ford says there were a lot of eyebrows raised when the blades "made the cut". The line of specialty scissors from this venture are sold under the company’s Exo brand, and Sally Ford refers to their manufacturing secret as a black art.
“Believe it or not, there’s a substance even harder to cut than Kevlar called Dyneema, which we also provide scissors to cut,” Ford writes on the Whiteley company blog. “With different modifications, our scissors can also cut carbon fibre, glass fibre and mixtures of the two, and are in ever increasing demand.”
It’s all part of the challenge of not just making traditional, forged, heritage craft scissors but modern-day cutting solutions. That might mean developing a custom scissor to trim horse hair, snip individual blades of grass around the holes on a golf course, or mastering a new technology entirely. “We are sent samples of materials... on a weekly basis for us to provide the best scissors to cut them, as we are known as solvers of cutting problems.”
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