THE sign for Sheffield in British sign language is a knife and fork.
It’s a significant fact. Sheffield was the world’s workshop as far as cutlery was concerned.
Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that if you picked up any knife it would have had ‘Made in Sheffield’ proudly stamped on its spine.
And what a hard-earned stamp that is.
Each knife blade is the result of serious labour, several hundred years of craftsmanship and hours and hours of bending, melting, smelting, buffing, polishing and engraving.
Sheffield may no longer be the world’s biggest cutlery maker - cheap labour in the Far East put an end to that - but it is still a global expert in the field.
Here, in a modest two-storey brick building, Chimo Holdings remains one of Sheffield’s few cutlery manufacturers. Its premises are not packed with hundreds of cutlers. Rather, it’s a meandering web of small ‘shops’ where each specialist works away at his craft, whether it’s grinding, buffing, engraving, cutting or gilding.
But it’s a tradition that’s in danger of becoming extinct, as factory director Chris Hudson explains: “You couldn’t start a business like this now because all the machinery we use you simply couldn’t buy today. The demand’s not there.”
Among the equipment are stacks and stacks of ‘dies’ - moulds for dozens of types of knives, forks and other implements. The metal is pressed into the mould, left to set and soldered on to its other half. Some of the dies at Chimo are seventy-years old. They are irreplaceable.
And much like the equipment, staff at Chimo Holding are also priceless. Keith Benton, 63, from Norton, who shapes and moulds the handles, has been working in the cutlery industry for more than 45 years and has passed his skills down to his son, Philip, who also works at Chimo Holdings.
This tradition of transferring skills down the family line is part of the city’s industrial heritage, says Chris: “That’s what it was like in Sheffield, skills were passed down through fathers and sons but people don’t make cutlery like we do now. Our clients are people who want something really special.”
And Chimo Holdings’ client list is certainly special, name-checking President Clinton, Prince Charles, various wealthy Middle Eastern businessmen, the Sultan of Brunei and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, where Ocean’s Eleven was filmed.
“You get a four or five star hotel and their guests expect everything of that standard - they don’t want cheap china and cheap cutlery, they want the best they can get,” says Chris.
The calibre of Chimo’s clientele, Chris believes, is owed to the company’s expertise, which is based on hundreds of years of cutlery-making. Chimo Holdings is one company in a long line of cutlery makers - the first dating back to 1270. The craft was honed in Sheffield as a result of its geography - the five rivers running into Sheffield powered the water wheels which drive the grinding wheels. Coal, which was mined locally, also enabled cutlers to smelt and forge the blades.
Cutlery-making grew so rapidly that by 1662 three out of every five Sheffield men were involved in cutlery-making and the city was home to 97 per cent of the country’s cutlers. This legacy, combined with the development of steel, enabled Sheffield to become to became the world’s cutlery capital.
Indeed, until the 1980s the majority of knives and forks were made in Sheffield. Now there are as few as 10 cutlery manufacturers in the city, compared to hundreds this time last century.
Recognition for Chimo Holdings’ expertise goes beyond its exclusive clientele, however. The company was recently part of the BBC’s The Boat that Guy Built, presented by Lincolnshire truck mechanic and motorbike racer Guy Martin. As part of the programme, Guy travelled across Britain on the canal network exploring Britain’s industrial heritage and making everything required for his trip from scratch, including the knives and forks with which to eat his beans on toast.
Naturally, Guy travelled to Sheffield and had a go at making an ‘Egg Waterloo Bolster table blade’ with the help of cutler David Wilkinson, 65, from Hillsborough, who has been making cutlery for nearly 40 years.
The sheer amount of labour behind something as seemingly simple as a knife blade is breathtaking. “A blade isn’t flat, you know,” says Chris, while drawing a diagram on a piece of paper.
“It’s actually triangular, Cheap blades are made from a flat piece of metal, which of course means that you can’t sharpen it properly because it doesn’t come to a point. A good blade is tapered.”
The blades are made in a Sheffield forge and the excess steel is then re-melted to be re-used. Knives are also the only utensil that technically count as ‘cutlery’. Cutlery means ‘to cut’, so a spoon and fork are not, strictly speaking, cutlery.
But that hasn’t stopped Chimo Holdings from branching out over the last 300 years. Not only do they make spoons, they make pastry forks, cold meat forks, turkey forks, beetroot servers and salad scissors.
But the pièce de résistance of Chimo Holdings’ output is upstairs in the factory - a freshly-gilded knife made from the die that Fabergé made for the Tsar of Russia’s wedding.
It’s a stunning, detailed handle with floral patterns and swirls, hand-gilded by Rosie Harcroft, 27, from Meersbrook.
The most mind-boggling piece of kit at Chimo Holdings, however, is the die with the Lord’s Prayer on it - the entire text intricately engraved onto a stamp no more than one centimetre in diameter.
“That was engraved by a Sheffield man called Edwin Prior in the 1930s - and he had to write the whole thing backwards,” says Chris.
Chimo Holdings Factfile
Cutlery refers only to knives. Contrary to popular belief it does not include forks and spoons.
Chimo is a Canadian Innuit word of greeting and friendship. In the context of Chimo Holdings in Sheffield the name reflects the fact the company is an amalgamation of companies, some dating back to 1750, which were brought together under the umbrella name ‘Chimo Holdings’, in the 1980s.
Among the original companies that comprise Chimo Holdings is William Yates, one of Sheffield’s most established cutlery manufacturers, founded in 1750.
Chimo Holdings ship cutlery to some of the world’s finest restaurants and hotels across the globe, complete with ‘Made in Sheffield’ logo.