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The Good Shears

Sewing Scissors Meme

Internet meme. Creator unknown, or else they would be credited.

I don’t know who the guy in the picture is or what TV show he’s from, but who’s gonna argue with him and his pistol? He and his buddies have been riding around the internet telling people that you can’t cut anything but fabric with your special sewing shears or the world as we know it will come to an abrupt halt.

Well, I’ve had it up to my hair roots with this scissor protectionism, which by the way, is similar to the one that hair stylists have about their “hair scissors”. (Something this dude desperately needs.) But hair stylists actually have just cause for inflicting egregious harm on anyone who cuts fabric or paper with their scissors. The design of hair scissors is different, and the construction methods do make them more fragile and prone to dulling.

Sewists have been making the same claim for I don’t know how long. Presumably, paper dulls the scissor blades more than fabric does. Why is that? Is there something to it? Is there any proof that the apocalypse is nigh if you should accidentally cut through your pattern paper with the good shears? It so happens that those assertions are mostly wrong. (I was going to say “horse caca” but you know, sensitive readers and all…)

I’ve spent over a year — off and on — trying to find some kind of evidence to support our righteous indignation at having our precious scissors sullied by the grubby hands of our spouses and children. This is the result of way too many research hours.

Content & Shape

(Kinda almost technical, so feel free to skip this section)

Aside from the plastic handles, scissors are made from 2 kinds of alloy. Carbon steel is 1% carbon and 99% iron, and plated with either nickel or chromium for rustproofing. Stainless steel has about 10% chromium added to to the iron and carbon to prevent rusting. (Yes, that required a little math.) Nothing exciting there, except that they amount to some pretty solid alloys that can stand up to a little pressed wood pulp.

I checked to see if the shape of the blades could have anything to do with the dulling. Let’s just say I got hopelessly lost among the German, Japanese, honed, non-honed, convex, bevelled, serrated, micro-serrated, and lord knows what else that had my eyes double-crossed. I’m not even sure any of us need to know that in order to buy and use quality scissors. But there it is! And no, the shape has nothing to do with paper vs. fabric either.

Primary Research

Like I said, I searched the internet for more than a year, trying to find some evidence that killing your family over sewing shears is justifiable. I couldn’t find much written about it so my friend, Rochelle, conducted some tests of various scissors floating around her house. I even asked someone I know with a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering. They’re not exactly the most scientific research methods, but I think quite adequate for these purposes. (I wasn’t about to set up a metallurgy lab for this. That’s going too far!) Anyway, here’s what we found.

Locked Scissors

Does anyone know the combination?

Findings

(Skip to this part)

The need to treat your shears like “The One Ring to Rule Them All (my precioussssss) is only a partial myth. I did find that it’s not a good idea to cut gummy, gooey substances like, um, glue… or tape. Obviously these will leave icky residue all over your blades. Then you’ll have something else to clean. It is also strongly discouraged to cut through hard metals with your sewing scissors. Try that and dull blades will be the least of your problems.

With regular (or irregular) use, there will be wear and tear on your scissors, no matter what you’re cutting. The harder the substance you cut through, the more dulling effect it has. That’s reasonable, right? So, some fabrics will actually dull your blades faster than paper. The fibres in silk organza, for instance, are stronger than those in paper and need more force to break… essentially, your kids cutting paper or cardboard doesn’t dull your blades any faster than you chopping up those old 1990s dungarees to make a handbag. It takes years to make any significant difference in sharpness.

What you do need to watch out for is someone using it to cut sheet metal in the garage. (Yes, husbands, I’m glaring at you!) This is just cause for hubby-cide, unless they take responsibility for getting them professionally sharpened again. Other metals and hard plastics will give your blades a run for their money.

Quality Test Results

Another thing I found was that there are crappy scissors, good scissors and great scissors. (No, no! You don’t have to tell me how smart I am.) And the brand doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the quality. (Check out the photos of Rochelle’s testing below and make of it what you will.)

Rochelle grabbed 3 pairs of the scissors she has about the house. One was a Kai that has been “used over 30 years as kitchen shears, cutting everything from fabric to plastic to wood to food to wire… used and abused, never sharpened”. The second is a 2-year-old Westcott that’s been used exclusively for paper. The third one… well, the third one should be used as a fireplace poker because it’s not cutting it as scissors.

Abused Kitchen Kai

Kai snips through one layer of knit fabric with ease

And it also cuts 6 layers with no problem

Now Kai zips through one layer of home decor fabric

Still easy going with 6 layers of home decor

Paper Westcott

Westcott paper scissors takes on one layer of poly knit.

Even 6 layers of polyester knit are still no match for the paper scissors

Westcott handles itself with one layer of home decor fabric

And Westcott scissors are still holding their own with 6 layers of home dec

The Westcott Poker

Rochelle: “Won’t cut Six layers stretch polyester, in one snip. Grabs and twists. (Ah, look at the gap in those blades!) Didn’t even mar the polyester snaggy fabric.”

Test conclusions:

“The Westcott had a crisper feel and sound, but both scissors cut equally well, no twisting or tearing. One snip went through fabric cleanly, no excessive pressure required.”

If two pairs of (the 3) scissors, at different price points, can perform so well after years of cutting everything but fabric, why are we so worried about using our special shears to cut out our patterns?

My own unbranded sewing scissors are 20+ years old and have been through some hard times where they were forced to go through paper, tape, plastic packaging, styrofoam, aluminum foil … Oh! And what’s up with people recommending that you sharpen your blades by cutting through aluminum foil? Isn’t that worse than paper? How can you sharpen and dull your blades at the same time? I’m not even going to hurt my brain thinking that through… Right! So, yeah, despite all the abuse, I’ve only had my scissors sharpened once and they’re still my favourite.

A Little Mind Bend

Sewing teachers tell their students over and over that you can’t use your sewing scissors to cut paper, and students take their word for it. Why do we keep believing what we’ve been told, even if we see no evidence of it? In short, mental habit. Belief perseverance is a phenomenon that parents and marketers use on us all the time. Simply put, the more often we are exposed to statements, the more we tend to believe them. (That’s why you feel like you have to Just Do It if you put on a pair of Nikes.) Anyway, because we have heard the advice to lock up our shears so often, we don’t think to question it. It just is, and we do it. Researchers also call this the “tenacity method” of knowledge acquisition. That is, hanging onto certain ideas and beliefs just because they’ve been labelled as facts and accepted by “everybody” for a long time. People, we have been duped by our own repetition.

Let’s say goodbye to this meme and all her pals.

My Conclusion

We don’t need to keep the good shears under lock and key. The worst thing that can happen to them is that they get lost because, frankly, they do have a lousy sense of direction. It’s ok to cut the pattern paper with them. Just don’t let them migrate into the garage or the kids’ backpacks. (That will be the last time you see them.) You don’t need to dismember your family members for cutting crimes.

I can’t tell anyone not to believe the myth, but I can live dangerously and cut my paper patterns and vinyl bits with my sewing scissors. Whatever you believe, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally have your blades sharpened by a professional — no matter what you use them for.  Spread the word that the Good Shears aren’t in any grave danger. Go on and cut something!

PS. If you want to learn more about how we adopt and perpetuate myths despite evidence to the contrary, do a search for the Tenacity Method of Acquiring Knowledge.

Sources

http://www.madehow.com/Volume-3/Scissors.html

http://www.precisionsharpening.net/about_scissors

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Scissors

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Comments

  1. I definitely agree that cutting through pattern paper won’t hurt your good scissors! Cutting cardboard though seems like it just wouldn’t be good for the structure of the scissors themselves, unless the blades are big-this is the same reason we don’t use embroidery scissors for fabric. It’s just not what they are made for. I do have to say that I had a brand new pair of Fiskars brand pinking shears and my daughter used them on paper and they were never the same afterwards. Maybe something to do with the fiber content of the paper and the alloy used for the blades? It was a good 25 years ago and maybe they use sturdier materials now. Based on my former employment at a big box fabric store, I can say for sure that cutting fleece is really hard on scissors/fabric shears. I’d never use my good pair for that. That said, keeping your family away from sewing scissors guarantees you’ll be able to find them when they are needed! Good article! It’s always good to challenge long held assumptions with facts.

  2. Great post! The myth has never made a lot of sense to me because we’re cutting out patterns all the time with our scissors, and that’s tissue paper. However, I do hide my scissors because I live in a house full of males, and I want my scissors. Who knows where they’d disappear to if I left them out!

  3. Rochelle says:

    Good write up!
    Shhhhh don’t tell my sewing teacher that I helped dispel the myth! HaHa

  4. |Great article. I’ve never been to worried about paper vs fabric, because I just had some cheap scissors I’d been using. I did just buy some nice scissors, and have been more careful, mainly just threatening the family with using them.

  5. Hmm, I wonder if we had 2 identical pairs of scissors and used one for both paper and fabric, and one for just fabric, for a prolonged period if we’d be able to tell the difference between the 2 after. For now, the “myth” keeps my scissors safe from others in the house.

    • It serves a purpose, doesn’t it? As for the longitudinal study of blades, I would be confused within 5 minutes. I’ll leave that up to someone else to try.

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