The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
A Brief History of — And Gratitude For — Scissors
And you thought your notions caddy was heavy! Early scissors from Turkey. Image: WikipediaAt the recent spring International Quilt Market in Portland, Oregon, I thought about scissors.
I thought about plenty of other things, too, but one day, while crossing the convention hall,
I passed by a scissor wholesaler and stopped in my tracks. In the booth were dozens of styles, shapes, and sizes of scissors. There were scissors for embroidery, sewing, quilting, crafting, dressmaking, and more. There were plenty of other sharp things that weren’t scissors, but were slightly dangerous/extremely useful things for quilters (e.g., seam rippers, rotary cutter blades, etc.) What that booth communicated was, if you’re a person who sews and wants to cut something, there’s a pair of scissors out there for you. And that was all from one scissors vendor!
The luxury of choices had me thinking about how fortunate we are to be sewing in 2018. And yes, in 2118, when people are slicing “fabric” with “lasers” that shoot out of their “eyes” we won’t see 2018 as being so great, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fact is, those of us who need to cut material have got it good compared to the scissor situation 100 years ago—and way, way better than folks had it before that.
Cutting implements back in the day could be fancy — if you could afford it. Items from the Museum zu Allerheiligen (Schaffhausen). Photo: Wikipedia.
The first scary, sharp objects we can arguably call scissors are about 4,000 years old and come to us from the Middle East; a number of these tools have been found in modern-day Turkey. What’s interesting about the really old scissors is that they look a lot like the spring-loaded snips many of us use in our sewing studios today, except the old ones were made of bronze (heavy) and we can wear a pair around our neck, provided we have a (plastic, lightweight) case for the sharp part.
Good ol’ pivoted scissors. Image: Wikipedia.Though the tool looks rough to us today, the earliest scissors were pretty darn ingenious.
Made by artisans who figured out metalsmithing was a thing connected two sharp blades of metal were connected at one end. By squeezing the ends together, voila! Cutting. Welcome to the world, scissors!
Things stayed pretty much the same for a while, there; spring scissors were made in this fashion throughout the Renaissance, which is good,
since the kings and queens were really into
fancy outfits. (It’s hard to make a decent
doublet without a good pair of scissors, I imagine). But a revolution in scissors was coming and would change the way people cut forever: Hello, pivoted scissors.
A pair of pivoted scissors is what it sounds like: two scissor blades brought together on a pin so that they pivot. I guarantee you have a pair of pivoted scissors nearby; most scissors made today are pivoted. And there were early scissors made in this pivoting way, maybe even as far back as Ancient Greece, but the pivoted scissors didn’t really take over until the 1700s in Europe and the Middle East. Making a pair was a huge undertaking and incredibly expensive. Those who could afford such luxuries could afford to have them decorated and engraved, and otherwise made fancy. You can see some of these tools in museums today.
But when the Industrial Revolution started really picking up steam (see what I did there?) the pivoted scissors became way, way easier to make. This was good, because pivoted scissors work well, and everyone wanted a pair. The English entrepreneur, Robert Hinchliffe, was the first to manufacture steel cast, pivoted scissors for the masses. From there on out, folks like us who cut stuff — be it twine, ribbon, paper, fat quarters, etc.—were a lot better off than they ever had been.
Things are looking good these days, though it’ll be fun to shoot lasers
out of our eyes eventually! Photo: Wikipedia.
My walk-by of the scissor vendor at Spring Market showed me just how many types of scissors there are for those of us who make things, but in some ways, not a lot has
changed in principle: the pivoted scissors model is still pretty solid. Of course, now we
have die-cutting systems and the mighty rotary cutter—but that’s another history lesson.
I’ll leave you with a few fast facts about scissors so you can impress your friends, but before I do, I want to urge you to take a moment with your scissors today. Thank them for being sharp, light enough to lift by yourself, and affordable. It wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t so lucky.
Fun Facts + Tips About Scissors
Cast iron scissors, perhaps the leading player in sewing baskets everywhere. Image: Wikipedia.It’s Plural
I’ve heard people say, “Hand me that scissors.” Though I’m not going to die on that hill, it is,
by all official accounts, a “pair of scissors.” A
scissor is a blade. Two blades or scissors make
a pair of scissors.
Scissors vs. Shears
Not the same thing! Garment sewists may know
this. The term “shears” refers to scissors longer
than 15 cm or 6’’.
Can I Cut My Fabric with My Kitchen Shears?
You’re kidding, right? At least the question gives
me an opportunity to explain that the main difference between regular scissors and kitchen shears is the location of the fulcrum, or pivot
point. In order to provide more leverage (read: cutting power), kitchen scissors have the fulcrum located farther from the handles to provide more leverage and thus more cutting power.
Don’t Run with Scissors
Listen to your mother!