Friday, January 18, 2013

In Praise of Scissors: A Meditation on their Utility

Scissors photo courtesy of Clip-Art
I have been thinking about scissors, lately, and how much I like them. My current favorite pair was made by ELK, Italy. It is stamped HOT DROPPED FORGED STEEL on the upper part of the larger blade just above the pin that connects the halves (I never noticed until now that the blades are not of equal shape or size). The handles are painted shiny black. The larger blade also has the larger handle—the one that fits my third and fourth fingers through a comfortable oblong opening. The other handle is rounder with a nicely beveled space for my thumb. You might think I selected this pair of scissors for just these qualities, and perhaps even paid a tidy sum for it. You’d be wrong.

These Italian scissors came to me by way of my Grandma Rose, after her death. By the time Rose died at age 100 yrs. & 9 months, she had very few possessions left. After about age 90, she had begun giving away her belongings in earnest anticipation of her death, preferring to bestow the gifts on selected recipients, rather than have someone else distribute her things after she died. But the decade saw her in good health. At her 100th birthday, she was presented with a check, from her nephews, so she’d have some more money to give away.  I was not named in her will (a long story for another time), but I did have the opportunity to sort through some of the items from her apartment that ended up with my cousins, her primary caregivers. From the amassed assortment, I selected: a dented red & gold Zvetouchny Tea tin, 2 small hand-painted china plates, a framed Bunko embroidered picture of irises (that my father had made for her), several old black & white photographs, and a small pair of very sharp scissors that fit my hand perfectly.

My first pair of scissors was probably a child-sized stainless-steel specimen, its blades with rounded edges to protect uncoordinated kid-fingers. I don’t have any memory, fond or otherwise, of this tool. I do, however, remember a number of other household scissors from my childhood years—each with its own purpose, its own place, and its own set of rules. (I suspect that my own children will recognize a similar scissorly pattern.)

First, in the kitchen was an implement that looked like a regular pair of scissors, but it had some heft and curves, and was a lighter silver color, perhaps some sort of aluminum alloy. I associate this pair of kitchen scissors with chicken fat. My mother would purchase, from the butcher, a large stewing chicken for making soup. Before the bird could be plopped into the pot, however, it had to be skinned. The chicken/kitchen scissors was up to the task. It could slice through the thick layer of puckered skin, cut the skin away from the muscular meat, and free the yellowy chunky fat from skin, meat, and bone. The bald, muscular bird was then ready for its fate. In the process, human hands and forearms, and scissor blades, all became covered in slippery chicken fat and had to be washed thoroughly in hot soapy water. The kitchen scissors never left its appointed room; it may have cut other types of fat or meat, but was not used for non-food purposes.

The second category of household scissors lived at the other end of the house, in my mother’s sewing box. These were the sewing scissors, and there were 2 kinds. The long straight-blade scissors with orange plastic handles were the generic “sewing scissors” for all non-paper projects, whether real sewing or just crafts. With these scissors we were allowed to cut thread, embroidery floss, yarn, fabric, felt, and scraps of textile materials such as ribbons or lace. With these scissors, I could create patches for my jeans, trim crewel projects, cut stray threads from clothes I was ironing, or make clothes for my dolls—but under no circumstances were these sharp blades to be dulled by contact with paper of any kind. The other pair of scissors in the sewing box was the pinking shears. These heavy-duty scissors had thick saw-toothed blades with which they created zig-zagged edges. Why does one need zig-zagged cloth edges? I have no idea! But what fun to cut material into strips trimmed with little diamond points.

For serious paper cutting, there were the desk-drawer scissors. These were heavy enough and sharp enough for cutting multiple sheets of paper at once, or thin cardboard, one piece a time. With these, we children could make our brown-paper-bag book covers, science-project posters, math or language flash cards, and the endless array of creative projects that we proudly presented to our parents. Want to make a jelly and jam serving dish? Just cut an egg carton into thirds, giving you 3 four-section dishes that you can cover with aluminum foil. Then create a center handle out of wire, and fill the 4 foil-covered cups with different kinds of jam. Want to make some birthday cards? Get some construction paper and some cardboard and start cutting! Time to wrap presents? Cut the wrapping paper straight and true, and curl the ribbon by dragging it across a scissors blade.

I do not remember which scissors we used to cut roses or gardenias to bring in from the yard, nor do I recall whether our parents had scissors for cutting hair (I, however, do have a pair of hair scissors--not to be confused with cuticle scissors, in my bathroom drawer). And I suspect that my father had various types of shears or scissors in his garage shop, each with a specific purpose and special place.

Having grown up in a multi-scissors household, I credit the later successful and timely completion of my master’s thesis and my doctoral dissertation to a good pair of scissors. Cutting and pasting is not the exclusive purview of word processing software. Throughout graduate school, I would write, type, print, and photocopy ideas onto paper—then I would cut paper into strips, lines, chunks of ideas, and quotations. I’d trim the margins and the unnecessary words with scissors blades as often as with a click and drag motion, and rearrange the chunks into coherent paragraphs.

Scissors are utilitarian. They are not weapons (unless you’re Angie Dickenson in Dial M for Murder); they have specific uses, and it’s probably a good idea not to curl ribbon or cut paperdolls with the chicken shears. For me, one definition of wealth is the possession of multiple pairs of scissors kept within reach in the desk and the nightstand, the kitchen and the garage. I am a wealthy woman. I have scissors, and I know how to use them.

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  1. Having been chided for using those same orange scissors to cut paper multiple times, I still maintain that doing so will not dull your shears.

    Also, the pinking shears cut in that specific diamond way in order to keep the fabric from fraying. I learned that just yesterday while discussing Mardi Gras costuming with a friend.

  2. Thanks for the pinking shears explanation. I think I knew that, maybe? Happy Mardi Gras, upcoming.