Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Cutler Grace loves life at the sharp end

Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood
Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood
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When cutler Grace Horne was seven years old, her family emigrated from Sydney, Australia, to the UK.

Her parents, both architects, bought a smallholding here - and without fail, she recalls from her Sheffield workshop, they always carried pocket knives.

Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood

Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood

“That was what started my interest, really,” she says.

“Dad lost a pocket knife - it would only have been a cheap thing, and he got another one - but none was ever as good as the one he lost.”

Grace has been making blades for more than 20 years, developing a cult following for her artistic knife and scissor designs. Her work, emblazoned with her initials and the all-important Sheffield mark, commands high prices. Pieces can take weeks, sometimes months, to painstakingly create, and are eagerly purchased by customers across the globe.

She spends her days filing and hammering at her workbench in her own small building - a former public convenience built in 1906 for tram drivers - next door to the Rising Sun pub at Nether Green. Her window looks straight out onto the pavement along Fulwood Road, offering curious passers-by an excuse to peer in as she demonstrates her craft with her dog, Bella, a collie cross, for company.

Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood

Sheffield knifemaker Grace Horne in her little workshop in Fulwood

“I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of scissors - they’re amazing as far as I’m concerned,” says Grace, showing off the latest work in progress, a pair of left-handed tailors’ shears in steel.

“There’s a big difference between something that just works and something that works beautifully. There are acres of subtlety that you can get lost in, and I think that’s lovely.”

Pruners, multi-bladed objects and cutlery sets have formed Grace’s repertoire. One unusual commission, at the request of a mortuary technician, took the form of a cadaver needle in Damascus steel.

This Thursday she is the focus of a short film, part of a strand called Forged In Britain, set to be shown during the 9pm episode of reality TV show Forged In Fire on the History channel.

Grace has just returned from the USA, having made her annual trip to Blade Show in Atlanta, the world’s largest trade event for the knife industry which attracts thousands of makers, from individuals to major companies.

She sold a range of Victorian-inspired cigar scissors in America for £1,000 each, and described the atmosphere at the show as ‘just manic’.

“I did a set of decorative daggers a little while ago – they went to a collector in Russia – and I’m going to another big show in Paris in September. That tends to pull in all the fine metal collectors from Europe.”

Grace grew up in Hay-on-Wye near the Welsh border, and studied for a degree in design, craft and technology in South Wales. Her final project was a set of three folding knives, and she later took a workshop in London.

She was ‘doing something completely different’ at the time - ‘metalwork, but not knives’ - when she heard a radio programme featuring Stan Shaw, the veteran Sheffield cutler who is still working today aged 90, and resolved to speak to him.

“He wasn’t contactable, so with the true arrogance of a 21-year-old I handed in my notice, packed my bags, came to Sheffield and perched on his doorstep.

“He told me he was too old to take on an apprentice, gave me a whole load of springs and blades and told me to go away and figure it out for myself because it wasn’t that hard. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

Stan’s attitude could have appeared dismissive, but Grace, a voluble character, is sympathetic.

“A lot of people say ‘I want to be a knifemaker’, and you think - you don’t really know what’s involved. I’m self-taught in that because there’s no formal training, you have to be proactive in getting the information you need.”

Still, she sought whatever tutoring she could - a masters in metalwork and jewellery at Psalter Lane Art College was followed by a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University in decorative steels. She now teaches at Hallam.

“I wouldn’t be as good a tutor if I didn’t have my own professional practice. I can forge OK - I don’t have forging facilities here, so if I need to I can borrow a friend’s. For complex forging I’ll collaborate with somebody else.”

Maintaining a collection of Sheffield-made articles helps to spur inspiration, and Grace - who’s 46, married to husband Kim, a pathologist, and mother to two daughters aged 13 and 18 - has branched out into corsetry.

“I kept my textiles separate from knife-making for quite a while, but they’re becoming more entwined.”

Items are seldom available readily for sale, however. In many instances customers are referred to Sheffield scissors firm Ernest Wright and Son.

“My basic scissors are £500, but people are willing to pay that.

“I very rarely have stuff for sale that hasn’t already been spoken for.

“I try and develop a new body of work to take over to Blade Show every year.

“At the beginning of the year I start doing designs, and posting pictures online - that develops a desire among people. They can see a project developing.

“My aim isn’t to sell lots - I make these pieces to drive me forward in a creative way.”

Ultimately, buyers ‘want the story’, she thinks.

“It’s like an iceberg - the finished piece is tiny compared to all of the stuff that goes on behind it.”

FEMININE TOUCH

Grace Horne is one of ‘only maybe a dozen’ female knife-makers in The world - and says she wouldn’t work anywhere else other than Sheffield.

“Being in Sheffield is as important to me now as it ever has been. I speak to people whose grandmother would have been a sharpener - there’s still that community memory of people working in the cutlery industry.

“There are still small engineering companies around that mean I can get things hardened and tempered if I want to, and also pretty much all of my inspiration is old Sheffield tools, catalogues, knives, scissors, needles, flatware - you name it.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

The trade is ‘male-dominated worldwide’, she says, but adds: “There is a tradition of women working in the knife-making industry in Sheffield, it’s just one of those things that’s hidden.”

More could follow in her footsteps, Grace believes.

“The work’s not dirty or noisy - it just requires hand skills and a bit of patience.”