You can be sure that there is at least one pair of beloved scissors behind every crafter, maker, and artist. Whether the art depends on scissors, like paper cutting, or they are simply an indispensable tool for getting work done, scissors feature prominently in the maker’s tool box.
First references to scissors appeared about 3000-4000 years ago in the Middle East. The original design was based on a U-shaped snip with one piece of bronze, folded in a U, with flattened and sharpened edges towards the points. This design moved through Europe and made its way to Asia. The U-shaped snip is still very popular in Japan. The more familiar pivot design reigns in Europe and North America. It was popularized, during the Industrial Revolution in England.
Although history typically addresses two fundamental scissor designs, there are countless variations. No two scissors are alike. Blade orientation, length, and design all vary, depending on the purpose of the scissors. Not to mention the variations in tips, handles, and sizes.
Most scissors are made of steel, specifically carbon steel, while others are made from stainless steel. Many are then coated with nickel or chromium to prevent rusting. In many cases, each side of the scissor is one piece—the handle and the blade made as one—which are then joined at the pivot point. Handles vary widely—some with decorative metal, others made from plastic added to the blades. Blades are designed and sharpened according to their ultimate purpose.
Typical pivot scissors have handles for your thumb and finger. They may be the same size and shape, or one may be round (for your thumb) and the other oval (for your fingers). No matter what the scissors look like or what they’re made of, if they don’t feel comfortable in your hand you won’t use them.
Like any other tool for crafts and making, it is important to use the right tool for the job.
Textile scissors are often the sharpest of scissors and are protected fiercely by anyone who owns them. They can range in size from blades only a few inches long—perfect for hand needlework, applique, and trimming tight corners—to blades nearly 8 inches long. Handles can also vary but are often plastic for comfort.
Tailors’ scissors, a type of textile scissors, are usually shaped with one pointed tip and one rounded tip, to keep the scissors from snagging the fabric as you cut. Tailors’ scissors will often have a handle design that is flatter on the bottom (the blade with the rounded tip) for your fingers. This design allows for the scissors to move as flat as possible across a cutting surface. Many fabric scissors have ergonomic handles and various holding/hole options. Test the different designs out before committing to a style.
Our first scissors are often paper scissors, also called safety scissors. They are relatively dull with rounded tips. Nothing fancy, but they can still do the job. Nearly every household retains a simple pair of all-purpose scissors, most often used for cutting paper or opening packages.
There are a lot more options, however, when it comes to paper crafts. Any visit to a big box craft store reveals scissors for cutting a myriad of edge designs beyond basic pinking shears. Fringes, scallops, and more are all possible with specifically designed scissors. For detailed paper cutting you can often find scissors with small tips for precision cutting. A lot of scissors for the paper craft market are similar to tailors’ scissors and are ergonomically designed to be flatter along the bottom.
Another great option for crafters is a pair of snips. Snips are ideal for clipping threads, floss, yarn, or even wire. Many operate like pivot scissors but they have comfortable handles that fit in the palm of your hand. They are easy to use just by squeezing the handles instead of inserting your thumb and fingers into holes. They also have small blades for quick and precise cuts.
For a more detailed understanding of the types of scissors on the market, check out the websites of the various manufacturers like Ernst & Wright, Kai, or Fiskars. All make scissors for a multitude of uses. Everything from sewing, bookbinding, fly tying, paper cutting, and more. You can find a scissor designed for nearly anything.
Cutting paper dulls scissors, which is why textile artists protect their fabric scissors so vehemently! But fabric will eventually dull the scissors too. No matter the task your scissors do, they will eventually need sharpening. If you live in a major urban center there is likely someone who can do this for you. Check with your independent craft retailer for recommendations, or hit the internet. How often you need to sharpen will depend on how often you use them and the quality of the original blade.
Pivot scissors may also need a drop of oil from time to time on the screw holding the pivot. If your scissors are getting squeaky, the time has come. Scissors that are out of line will not cut properly. Keeping the pivot point screw in top shape will help with that.
Finally, always make sure to store your scissors closed. Number one, for safety reasons. But also because anything dropped on the blade can damage or dull it.
Should you spend the big bucks?
Quality scissors are not cheap. There is no getting around that. You don’t have to spend a fortune on scissors though. Pick and choose where you make your investments. Spend what you can but don’t be afraid of the investment. I use my Japanese tailors’ scissors daily. I spent a few hundred dollars on them via a friend who imports Japanese knives for chefs. I protect these scissors with my life. But I’ve also used them for years—they still don’t need sharpening and I oiled the pivot screw once. The quality steel and design mean they are lasting my lifetime. Worth every dollar.
On the other hand, the small applique scissors that I use almost daily cost only $15. Mostly, they cut thread. Sometimes I use their sharp points to cut fabric for applique. When they dull out I will probably just replace them.
No matter your art or business, you must have a good pair of scissors. And no matter the scissors, they do a fundamental job. Before you buy your all-important scissors, decide how they’ll be used, choose wisely, and keep them in good shape—you won’t be disappointed.
Cheryl is a quilter, writer, and teacher. She enjoys her Morning Make in the tiny sewing room in her Calgary, Alberta basement.