A brief history of embroidery scissors

A brief history of embroidery scissors

- Categories : Haberdashery Collectibles

Blasons des tailleurs et des couturières

“Scissors is the name given to a sharp instrument composed of two blades joined together by a nail”. Such was the definition of scissors in the Roret encyclopaedic manual in 1835. This is certainly not the first description of this tool, nor the oldest nor the most meticulous, but the charm is in the simplicity of the statement.

Lady wearing a chatelaine

Reading along, it continues: “Each blade is divided into five parts: the eye ring used for grasping with one or two fingers; the point, which is the tip of the blade, used for pricking; the joint, on which is placed the screw; the handle which is between the ring and the joint; the blade which is between the tip and the joint. There are two other essential parts – the edge where the blade starts and the pivot point, which serves to block the scissors when closing.” All these different scissor parts are found on good quality scissors to this day, as in the Middle Ages.


This lady is wearing a chatelaine
with a pair of scissors, needle holder
and pin cushion.

A description of scissor-making borrowed from Saint-Joanny:
“Apart from the forger, the grinder and the polisher, there is also the adjuster who assembles the two pieces and pierces the hole, the polisher, the sharpener, the screw maker (tapper), the readjuster who grinds a second time, the finisher who gives a final grinding to the blades, the first sharpener, the screw maker who comes in a second time to remove the screw for dipping buy the temperer, the rectifier who corrects any distortion from the tempering,  the second sharpener who works only on the inside of the blade, the rubber who removes any oxide left over from the dip, again the screw maker who reassembles the two parts, the sharpener, the polisher and the wiper…”


Forged scissors blanks

Forged scissor blanks. It is the work of the readjuster to sharpen the forger’s blanks.

Another task can be added to the list, the two blanks which will form the finished pair are marked. These marks can be seen on the pivot point – either small file cuts or stamped numbers. This is an important stage in the process as the scissors are assembled and adjusted before being taken apart again for tempering, a delicate operation which is necessary to strengthen the steel. They are then paired up again and readjusted because there can be a slight distortion due to the high temperatures of the dip.

Pairing marks inside the scissors

Holding a pair of vintage scissors in the hand is a moving moment, if we take the time to consider the workers who helped to make them. The French scissor-making industry seemed to fall into two schools of thought. In the town of Thiers, cutlers and scissor-makers tended to separate the different operations. Sharpeners sharpened, tappers tapped and adjusters adjusted. The production in Thiers was broken up into different trades and as a consequence, the streets were filled with hundreds of porters zigzagging around to take the production on to the next step. Not only in the town, but also in the surrounding mountains where the farmers would finish their day in the fields, before sitting at their workbench to put together scissors and knives. However, in other regions such as Langres, Nogent or Chatellerault, one person would make a pair of scissors from start to finish, only leaving the wiping and sometimes polishing, to his wife.

Professional ancient scissors with pairing marks

Pairing marks are a good indication of the quality of the scissors. They can be found on each of these four professional scissors.




Below, vintage blade shears signed “Laverde à Corbeil”. “The shears are composed of two blades joined by a steel semi-circle which serves as a hinge permitting to squeeze the blades together as much as required for the purpose.” Camille Pagé in Cutlery from the origins to our days, a monumental documentation in four volumes, edited between 1896 and 1904.

Ancient blade shears signed Laverde in Corbeil

The predecessor of the scissor was the shear. The word scissors derives from the French “ciseaux”, from the latin “cisoria” and shears from the Norwegian “skera” (tool for shearing) and German scheren.

Large professional scissors are also known as shears. The shear in French is known as “force” from the Latin forfex meaning scissors or shears. The Romans used them to trim their hair or beards, and they were used in Ancient Greece. However, it is generally agreed that the first scissors appeared in Egypt around 1500 BC. The larger shears were used for cutting sheets, smaller ones for dressmaking and even smaller ones could be found in toilet bags. 


The first trace of scissors as they are known today can be found in an illustration in a Latin Bible dating from the 10th century. In later times references are more numerous. An inventory in 1328 of the possessions belonging to Queen Clementia of Hungary mentions a pair of scissors. The mistress of Henry IV of France, Gabrielle d’Estrées had listed in her objects of value “two gold cases for putting scissors, one garnished with diamonds, the other with rubies and diamonds, valued at three hundred ecus”. 

The 18th century saw the arrival of embroidery and tapestry as an activity for rich, elegant ladies. It was also the arrival of hugely refined objects which were displayed in the lounges of bourgeois homes. Scissor cases were no exception to the rule and the artisan cutlers were able to show off their limitless skills, by creating veritable works of art from precious and semi-precious materials. 

Collection of vintage sewing sets

Nogent-en-Bassigny is often considered as the capital of high-quality scissors.
Embroidery scissors are small in size, and used for many different techniques
of tapestry or fine dressmaking. Some of the most beautiful examples are made
from what is known as steel lace work, a highly complex technique,
as complicated to make as from gold or silver.

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