Art & Photography

At Work: Ernest Wright & Son Ltd, Scissor Makers

The head of Sheffield’s remaining scissor-dynasty, Nick Wright talks to us about his family business, producing quality traditional scissors whose Edwardian designs satisfy a modern audience
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“My great-grandfather, Ernest Wright Sr. started the company in 1902”, Nick Ernest of Ernest Wright and Son Ltd says, “I’m the fifth generation of the scissor-making family”. Born and raised in the heart of Britain’s steel-trade in Sheffield, Nick’s family has been producing the same models of scissors for over a century.

That century has encompassed the rise and fall of Britain’s manufacturing clout: “My father always used to say that the world came to Sheffield for scissors, and that was pretty much true. There were 150 companies within a square mile of us, in those days – the 1960s and 70s – and we’re down to just two now”, Nick says. Though the UK’s manufacturing industry has levelled out post-recession – the UK is the 11th largest national manufacturing nation in 2014 – Sheffield’s halcyon days, crowning the steel industry (“I’m referring here to the cutlery trade” Nick notes) are long-gone. Today, Ernest Wright is a much more compact affair: “I have two skilled – and I do mean skilled – 70 year old chaps (Eric and Cliff), and I have two apprentices and myself at the moment”, Nick says of his workforce.

“Once we’d made a pair of scissors and sold it to somebody, that would be their pair of scissors for life”

panels 3 and 4At 45, Nick took over the business from his father two years ago, during a difficult financial period for the company: “We’ve had our ups and downs, I’ll put it that way. We went into receivership in 1988, and then my father bought the business back again. There’s an awful lot that’s gone on; from the mid-1980s onwards in comparison to the 80 years before was pretty dreadful. We came very close to disappearing, but somehow, someway, we’re still here as a family business” Nick says, with a degree of pride. That in itself is a feat: so many of Britain’s family-run heritage brands have disappeared over the last 30 years, it’s a testament to the Wright family that they’ve managed to hang on in there in the face of tough financial pressure, and the onslaught of the late-eighties and nineties, with their ‘disposable’ mentality.Incidentally, “I’ve got about 5,000 plastic handled scissors from the 1980s left!” Nick chuckles. “They’re good little things, as far as plastic handles are concerned, but the products we really concentrate on are traditional designs that last, and that haven’t gone away.” In fact, the plastic handled scissor is the youngest design in a repertoire that hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years: “The main stay of our business has always been traditional designs, like the Turton pattern kitchen scissors, or the side-bent pattern of dress making shears. They’re patterns that have been around for over 100 years, probably more likely a couple of hundred years”, he adds. These centuries old designs are proven to last: “Our problem before was probably that once we’d made a pair of scissors and sold it to somebody, that would be their pair of scissors for life.” So much for repeat business.
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Things are looking up though for the company: “The recession certainly hurt us, massively. But, in terms of the future, my plan has been for the last two years to keep the thing going.” Part of that is investing in skills which is where “our Eric and our Cliff” come in. Learning from the mistakes of other small skill-based industries, Nick’s made sure their specialised expertise are being passed on to a new generation. “These amazing skills have now been documented and people can start to understand what effort goes into making a pair of scissors. It’s been all about keeping those, and paying for two young lads to learn these skills because it takes a good four, maybe five years to get up to that skill level.” Nick also has ambitions to bring the cut-right pattern scissor back to life: “It’ll cost £15-20,000 to have the moulds and what-have-you re-cast”. Following the popularity of the Turton pattern kitchen scissors, which featured in a documentary by Shaun Bloodworth titled The Putter the design now has a two-month waiting list on new pairs, which buoys Nick. But only time will tell whether the enthusiasm for British-made Sheffield scissors – and UK manufacturing at large – continues, and whether Ernest Wright & Son will see another century. One thing is certain however, their scissors certainly will – and that’s the real benchmark of quality.

Words Betty Wood
Photography Steve Kenward

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