by David Thomas July 05, 2022
The city that put scissors on the UK map
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. Today, just two firms are still making handmade, traditional scissors but they are keeping our heritage craft alive.
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.
“The discovery, in Sheffield, of crucible steel manufacturing process in 1761 changed the availability of iron and steel tools radically,” explains Grace Horne, the Sheffield-based author of Making Artisanal Scissors. Horne, an academic and independent craft maker of scissors among other things, notes that the Sheffield Directory only listed one maker of scissors and surgical instruments in 1774. By 1797, there were 87.
As David Hey recounts in his book, A History of Sheffield, three out of five workers in the town were already working the cutlery trades by the seventeenth century and with the technological advances, the entire region enjoyed a boom that lasted many generations. By the mid-19th century, about 60% of “cutlers” worked around the Sheffield region, which manufactured 90% of all British steel.The Cutting Edge: Antique Scissors History, a 2006 write-up for scissors collectors, Richmond, VA-based antique expert Carolyn Meacham paints a picture of how this period of incredible growth and prosperity drove a boom in scissor manufacturing that was playing a bit of catchup with cutlery:
“By the mid 19th century, thousands of pairs were being produced each week,” relates Meacham. “There were 120 cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield and each had hundreds of scissor patterns for sale.”
While the timelines aren’t all synchronous, the same historical sweep played out in other cities around the world, whether it was ancient iron working or steel making and the manufacture of scissors.
Sheffield – like Solingen in Germany, Premana in Italy and other centres of blade manufacture – grew up around rivers to provide power (later replaced by steam) and deposits of iron ore (for forging) and coal (for firing the forges)
As with other cutlery-blade towns, a sharp decline took hold in the 20th century when the mass production of cheaper, low-quality scissors weighed on traditional makers. The cost of high-grade steel, as well as the need for highly-skilled labour put an enormous strain on these companies.
Today, in a city of almost 600,000, there are just two remaining Sheffield firms who are committed to making quality, craft scissors by hand and keeping the connection alive with the past: William Whiteley and Ernest Wright.
William Whiteley is one of those rare companies in any industry that can boast of employees with 11 and 12 generations of connections to the founders. The company incorporated in 1760 and the family says its ancestors were likely involved with the trade well before.
That is impressive, especially when you consider the average lifespan of a modern family-run business is 24 years.
Whitleley received its first Royal Warrant in 1840 and added to that when it later bought the Wilkinson brand, which is famous for introducing the "sidebent" design for tailor shears.
This design bends the handles, or bows, of the scissor to point up, which allows the bottom blade to rest flat on the material to ensure a clean, precise cut.
Today, the company operates with just under 20 employees and business has lately been surging, boosted in part by Covid-19 as homebound people look more to crafts, as well as a resurgent interest in quality, handmade products.
The company has kept one foot firmly in the past, while innovating with new products and processes for cutting everything from Kevlar to carbon fibre. As the firm explains:
“From Kevlar in bullet-proof vests for the Ministry Of Defence, to carbon fibre in Formula 1 racing cars – and from the world’s finest bespoke tailored suits on Savile Row to the grass that grows around the holes on putting greens; we make scissors to cut it all!”
Ernest Wright is the other remaining heritage brand of scissor made in Sheffield. In the 2010s, the firm struggled and tragically lost its family connection in the turmoil.
But the company’s plight ended up attracting a lot of public attention, amplified first by a short film that ran on the BBC that went viral in 2014 and, later, by another viral video produced by Business Insider entitled Why Ernest Wright scissors are so expensive.
The buzz did, however, help ultimately save the firm because its new owners got caught up in the story 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 the story!
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