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Page last updated at 15:33 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010
Industrial Sheffield's last scissor factory

By Grace Parnell
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

Kutrite of Sheffield sign
In the 1960s the company name Ernest Wright & Son Ltd was changed to the 'modern' sounding Kutrite. The original name is now being re-adopted

In the 1970s, Sheffield boasted no less than 150 small scissor-making companies. Now there are just two. One of those companies is Kutrite, established in 1902 as Ernest Wright & Son.

The Kutrite factory has been located all over Kelham Island and Smithfield in Sheffield, but now sits happily at the junctions of Green Lane, Alma Street and Russell Street between two award-winning pubs.

The other remaining Sheffield scissor manufacturer is Whiteley's - established in 1760 as William Whiteley & Sons (Sheffield) Ltd. The company, now based at Crystal Peaks, celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2010 and sells around 250,000 pairs of scissors worldwide each year.

In its 1960s heyday Kutrite employed 80 staff but now there are just three skilled 'scissor putter-togetherers,' and all are past retirement age. They have stayed on because there are no apprentices to take on their skills - and for the love of scissors, of course.

1974 Kutrite catalogue
The 1974 Kutrite catalogue listed around 150 different types of scissors

A 'little mester', Walter Wright, began making scissors in the 1880s. Little mesters were self-employed craftsmen who rented space in a factory and specialised in one step of the production process. They were the backbone of Sheffield's cutlery industry from the late 16th to the 18th century.

In 1902 Walter's son Ernest established Ernest Wright & Son Ltd. They rented an eight-foot-square room from cutlery manufacturer Brookes & Crookes. By the 1960s it was decided that the company needed a more modern name and they hit upon Kutrite. In 2010 they are rebranding for the 21st century, under the original name Ernest Wright & Son Ltd.

Steel globalisation and cheap imports meant many steel companies and metalwork firms in South Yorkshire, and particularly in Sheffield, closed down. Kutrite managed to keep its head above water through tough years but keeping the trade alive through the latest recession has been a struggle for the company.

Philip Wright, managing director of Ernest Wright & Son Ltd
Philip Wright is Chairman and Managing Director of the company

They have traditionally sold industrial scissors and the current catalogue lists over 150 different types; upholsterers, carpet-fitters and tailors shears, scissors for postal services all over the world, scissors for chefs, butchers, hairdressers…

Now the company intend to branch out into retail, selling handmade kitchen scissors, dressmaking shears, manicure scissors and gardening blades - many presented in lined boxes.

Kutrite's sales director Nick Wright is the fifth generation of the family, working in the family business voluntarily in the hope that they will be able to keep going through the tough economic conditions. Nick says scissors imported from abroad may be cheaper but cannot compete on the quality of Sheffield handmade scissors:

"They have much cheaper overheads abroad and undercut us in price, but we compete on quality. Many scissors made abroad hardly cut - the paper just wraps around the blade instead of shearing it. Kutrite do a very good quality shear and even in the recession people are spending money on top quality items."

For the love of scissors

Hammer
Cliff's hammer has worn to the shape of his grip

Cliff Denton is one of the three skilled scissor-makers remaining in the company. He has done the job for 51 years, including 20 years at Morton Scissors on West Street. His experience shows in the wooden handle of his hammer, which has worn to the shape of his grip.

According to Cliff, it is difficult for the company to find the right young people to take on the trade: "We've had apprentices before but it's not a collar-and-tie job - it's a dirty job. Young people stay with us a while and then want to move on to other, cleaner, jobs. It's only natural. But there are a lot of nooks and crannies which need to be learned in this job. When I started aged 15 I was turning screws and sweeping up - you learn bit by bit."

Cliff says there will always be a need for this type of industry in the UK and thinks it is sad that it has declined so drastically: "In the 1950s and 60s little mesters were on every street corner producing and repairing. But they've all died off and nobody took over, nobody wants to do it."

Cliff Denton, scissor maker
There are just three remaining skilled 'scissor putter-togetherers' at Kutrite

Ian Chapman is another scissor putter-togetherer who is past retirement age. He has been at Kutrite for 42 years: "Every job is different. I never get bored - you go from one job to another and get a different challenge with each thing. I've done it 95% of my life and I like doing it, that's why I carried on after I retired!"

Many of the scissor-making processes, tools and methods have stayed the same for decades. The scissors start off as individual blank blades which at one time were made in Sheffield from scratch but now come from Italy. The blades are smithed (straightened), assembled, and then tempered in furnaces of different heats.

The first furnace is white hot at about 900ºc. The second is kept at a golden-coloured 'straw heat,' 840ºc, which levels out the temperature. This process hardens the blade but not the handles of the scissors which remain relatively malleable so they can be adjusted at the end.

Scissors in a furnace
The scissors are put in furnaces of two different temperatures

The scissors are quenched in a bath of oil and water for five to 10 minutes. Water alone hardens the blades too quickly and makes them brittle but oil absorbs the heat slowly and gently, lubricating the metal. After quenching the scissors are tempered in another furnace at 120ºc.

The handles are smoothed and polished, a process known as bow-dressing. This was a job traditionally done by hand by women but now it is done mechanically. Joyce Addy, 80, worked as a bow-dresser in another scissor factory in the 1970s. "We did the handles one by one from scratch. When I joined the cutlery trade after leaving school I started off pinning wooden scales on to knife handles. We worked in ebony, rosewood and peach wood, and then we got a contract with the Scouts to make daggers with stag- and buffalo-horn handles.

"Then I moved on to working with scissors and surgical instruments. Being back in a scissor factory brings back memories - the smells, the taste. But I'm glad I don't have to do it now!"

Finally the scissor blades are ground and sharpened, glazed, plated, buffed, polished and packaged for selling; Made in Sheffield scissors, part of the city's heritage.

  • With thanks to Kutrite/Ernest Wright & Son for the information in this feature.

Did you work in Sheffield's metalwork industry, or know someone who did? Do you own a pair of Kutrite scissors? Tell us your memories of the little mester trades in Sheffield, using the form below.

Kutrite/Ernest Wright and Son scissor factory on Kelham Island, Sheffield
The factory has been all around Kelham Island and Smithfield. It is now between the Fat Cat pub and Kelham Island Tavern

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The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.


Your comments

Miriam Krause, Lisle, Illinois, USA

I have a pair of scissors that say "Made by Richards of Sheffield, England." They look just like the ones in the photo but the tips do not meet. Are they worth repairing or should I just put them in the trash?

Joshua, Sheffield

Having lived down the lane from Kutrite for the last two years - and putting up with a duff Chinese pair of kitchen scissors, I decided it completely ironic that I hadn't bought a pair direct from the factory down the street!

I visited and ended up purchasing several pairs , some as presents - the craftmanship and passion that goes into these is quite obvious. It's an artisan trade and one we must be careful not to lose. Please do visit the shop and have a look.

Ken Hunt, Ontario, Canada

I bought a pair of scissors for my wife at the 'Sheffield Scene' shop on Surrey St about nine years ago. They are very fine and she uses them when she is doing cross stitching. The name on the scissors is A Wright and Son Ltd Made in Sheffield - it would seem they are still in business in Sheffield.

Katie Ellis, Sheffield

My family own the last UK-based traditional saw manufacturers (Flinn Garlick Saws), also based minutes away from Kelham Island and Kutrite in Sheffield. I am the 3rd generation of my family to work in this industry and we aim to keep saw manufacturing traditions alive.

Patrick Allen, Sheffield

My mother Irene Allen worked in the metalwork industry after the war. She worked at Roberts and Belk just off Arundel Gate which is now a different company. My aunts Kitty Wainright, Nora Storer and Vera Cutts all worked in the cutlery industry for many years.




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