Meet Sheffield's amazing Grace - who could be the only woman scissor maker in the country
Knives, scissors, corsets - is this Sheffield studio the home of someone hiding a dark secret?
As you learn the studio was once a public convenience, your fears grow.
But if there is a fetish here, it’s a healthy one and one which fits this city perfectly.
We’re talking about a fixation with making in all its glories.
Meet Grace Horne maestro maker of knives, scissors, corsets and - coming soon - shoes.
The mum-of-two, aged 50, whose studio is in Nether Green, made her name after her bespoke knives and scissors started fetching five-figure prices.
Married to Kim, a pathologist, Grace thinks she is the only woman scissor maker in the country and her journey to this point makes her choice of profession sound almost inevitable.
When she was seven, her family emigrated from Sydney, Australia, to Wales after her parents bought a smallholding.
Her parents always carried pocket knives “because they were useful, trimming sheep’s hooves or for my mother working in the garden.”
So she grew up with knives, they were a normal part of her everyday life, but perceptions have changed.
“Knives have a really bad press, it’s really hard to get across that they are useful tools,” she says. “I collect old Sheffield knives and most people who are anti-knife, if you show them a traditional one, they’ll say not those.
“The problem is when you say knives, they automatically have an image in their head of a machete-type big weapon which is only a part of the picture.
“If I show them this delicate three-inch folding knife, their attitude can change.”
The knife she is describing is legal to carry and a useful tool for fishermen and gardeners. It differs from the fixed blades, such as carving knives, because it folds to safety.
The traditional Sheffield knife operates like this, on a spring, so it snaps open and shut. It’s called a walk and talk knife, the snap heard while opening and closing a blade is talk, while the spring tension that causes the blade to spring open or closed is walk.
Many of her knives were pocket jewellery, useful tools, but also objects of a beauty. Sadly, the history and beauty of practical knives got lost as they became demonised thanks to multiple stabbings, not least in Sheffield.
So six years ago, Grace set off on another path, scissor making. It was when she wanted to make scissors to fit into a folding knife that she got hooked.
She visited scissor maker Ernest Wright on Broad Lane in the city centre for advice and was intrigued. A good intrigue as one pair of scissors she has since made sold for £10,000.
“As soon as I learnt properly what to do, I stopped knife-making,” she says. “I went from being one of only three women knife makers to the only woman scissor maker, I think! I like to stand out from the crowd.”
And that is exactly what she’s done ever she came to Sheffield as a 21-year-old, eager to be an apprentice of legendary cutler Stan Shaw, who sadly died in March, aged 94.
He said no to her request, but did give her some pieces to experiment with and told her to figure it out.
“When he told me to figure it out, that’s typical of Sheffield crafts people,” she recalls with fondness.
“They don’t give themselves credit, what they do is hard!
“Stan said come back and I did with some pieces different to those he was working on.
“He gave me advice and showed me his bucket of old blades, beautiful old hand forged blades from 150 years ago, which I knew were too good to experiment on.”
Grace also understands Stan’s reluctance to taking on an apprentice. “I get people asking to work with me but the workshop is too small and I don’t work like that.”
Their paths crossed again as Stan continued working into his 90s in Kelham Island.
She says: “I used to tease him about his 5-year waiting list and say to him ‘At some point you’ll have to stop imagining that you’ll be around to finish this.’ Typical Stan, he just said to me, ‘Not my problem.’”
Stan was used to a competitive market which could be brutal, but nowadays the cutlery community works together, looking out for each other.
Grace says: “I was really sad to hear of Stan’s passing, but listening to his story, the rivalry and the issues that were around when he was training, it’s not like that now.”
Her relationship with Ernest Wright and Sons is an example. They gave her the taste for scissors and she will send customers to them if she hasn’t got what they want.
She also references Sheffield pocket knifemakers Michael May and Stephen Cocker, not forgetting custom knifemaker Stuart Mitchell and Will Ferraby.
Grace says: “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the generous professionals, particularly other knifemakers, for their support and technical dissemination.”
Not only are individuals helping, companies weigh in too.
“There are also engineering companies who want to support and celebrate people still making cutlery. But we’re not very good about shouting about ourselves, our successes.”
Contrast this to America, which Grace visits annually for the Blade Show in Atlanta. “When I go there they are amazed we don’t shout about Sheffield, they seem to value it more.”
Having attended for 18 years, the pandemic stopped her going last year, but she’ll be back in Atlanta in June.
So how did the pandemic affect her? “The Atlanta show always falls on my daughters’ exams and the pandemic made me realise I could take that week off so I spent time with my girls.”
She’s mum to Elara, 17, and Miranda, 21. They live in Fulwood.
“At those ages, the chances of being at home with them are getting less likely, so I really enjoy being able to say I make the most of my time with the girls.”
She did do some designing but shut down the studio. And like so many of us, she missed simple pleasures. “It made me realise there’s nothing like meeting up for a beer.”
Not surprising as her studio is handily situated. “If someone visits, we decamp to the pub,” she says.
That’s because the converted loo once used by tram drivers is next door to the Rising Sun in Nether Green. “They have beer and coffee, they’ve spent a lot on a beer garden, so good luck to them.”
When she first moved in, Grace went to see the headteacher of the nearby Nether Green School, to explain that although she was a knifemaker her premises were safe.
In fact, she went one better and demonstrated, safely of course. The window from her workbench looks straight onto Fulwood Road and it gave her an idea.
“When the kids walked home, they got lifted up and saw what I was doing. Having that interaction really helped.”
A more recent interest has been in corsets - a fashion item which has signified beauty and oppression, but is now being reclaimed by women like Grace.
It started when she was choosing what to study post degree.
Grace did a masters in metalwork and jewellery at Psalter Lane Art College followed by a PhD at Hallam, where she now teaches, in decorative steels. At that point, she decided it would be metal as a profession and textile as a hobby.
But a visit to a kitchen fair in Harrogate with her mother, made Grace realise the textiles she was seeing at the fair were as much about engineering as her grounding in knifemaking.
Her mother sensed the interest and paid for a corset making course.
“It is engineering, it’s not different in my mind, there are a lot of overlaps. The use of textile techniques in scissor and knife making is vast.”
She says her corsetry has developed in parallel to knifemaking and although it seems like an unusual combination, the link to engineering is clear through knowledge of materials and precise craft skills.
As if that wasn’t enough, she’s just starting to make shoes!
“I fall down rabbit holes. I try not to get distracted, but the thing I really like about all of it is that these are processes which are industrial but being done domestically.
“I’m fascinated by the course of industry and the domestic world.”
That’s helped by her knowledge of Sheffield and the role played by city women in industry. Grace says: “There’s a huge history of women working in these fields, doing these things at home while looking after children.”
But she knows she is still the exception. “Are you wondering why more women don’t make knives? They make jewellery, but what is it that they won’t consider making knives?
“It’s an issue to me because I’m here. It doesn’t strike me as being anything out of order, people are amazed that I made them, but I’m not.
“It’s just something I do.”