Reducing our consumption is one of the biggest ways we can individually have an impact – particularly our consumption of plastic. Making smart choices about the tools we’re using to create our clothing is therefore a really good idea. Sustainable scissors may not be your first thought when trying to make more eco-friendly choices in sewing your own clothes, but every choice has the potential to be very impactful.
What’s wrong with using regular household scissors for cutting out fabric?
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using whatever scissors you have access to for cutting out your fabric, it’s a good idea to have dedicated scissors for different tasks as you progress in your sewing journey.
Regular household scissors tend to get used for everything and anything – sticky substances are hard to remove safely from the blades and cutting into paper regularly can make them go dull and in need of some sharpening. Scissors with dull blades just won’t cut that well through anything – and this can lead to blisters, wrist pain, hand fatigue and all sorts of other problems as you end up trying to force them to cut through fabric. Forcing scissors to cut through fabric isn’t just bad for your hands, you also run the risk of damaging your fabric as you hack away.
Proper dressmaking or tailor’s shears are therefore usually number one on a sewist’s list for new scissors; you just can’t beat them for cutting out fabric. These tend to have larger finger holes and longer blade shanks than your average household scissors, plus they’re usually better weighted to prevent fatigue in your hands and wrists. Having a separate pair that you use for cutting out patterns is also a good idea, as you really don’t want to be getting sticky substances all over your fabric shears, or dulling them by cutting paper. You can of course use your regular household scissors for this task, but depending on how often you cut out patterns, you might want to consider using a pair of dedicated paper scissors. As these are designed for cutting out paper patterns, they’re often coated to prevent sticky substances from damaging the blades. It’s also helpful to have paper scissors if you have kids and you don’t want them pinching your lovely fabric shears for their messy crafts projects!
The other main set of scissors usually found on a sewist’s wish list are thread clips. While not your typical scissor shape, these little snips are super useful for clipping loose thread ends close to seams. Unlike most scissors, thread clips have a spring which means they’re resting position is with the blades apart – this gives you precise control over how much they close, so you only cut what you’re intending to. Their short blades mean you’re able to accurately snip threads without clipping into your fabric and you can use them on a whole range of projects, including hand sewing and even for clipping yarn ends after knitting or crocheting. I keep my thread clips right next to my sewing machine, so that I always have them to hand when I need them the most.
Depending on what types of sewing you’re interested in, you might also have more scissors with dedicated tasks. Each type of scissor is specifically designed to be used for a purpose, so embroidery scissors are super small and pointed, while leather shears are super sharp with long blades.
It’s important to note that as a beginner sewist, you absolutely don’t need to get every different type of scissor out there – start with a set of fabric shears and thread clips, then work out from there what types of sewing you do the most and which scissors are the most appropriate for the tasks involved.
What to look for when choosing sustainable scissors
Sustainable scissors start with the material they’re made from, how exactly they’re made and where they’re made.
Plastic handled scissors are not a good choice in the long run. The plastic can give you serious blisters, plus eventually it’ll become brittle and break, meaning you have to buy more scissors. If you have delicate wrists or struggle with anything too weighty, you might be tempted to go down this route since plastic handled scissors are usually lighter weight – however, having broken one wrist and seriously damaged the other in the past, I personally would still choose properly weighted dressmaker’s shears every single time. When cutting fabric, you should be cutting close to your table top anyway, so that you can most accurately guide your scissors around the lines of the pattern, not cutting in mid air. This means that the table top can take some of the weight of your scissors for you, helping you to cut accurately.
Metal handled scissors should have properly finished handles so that they’re comfortable to use all day long – as indeed many professional tailors, dressmakers and pattern designers do. If the handles feel rough or sharp in any way, they aren’t fit for purpose – the handles need to be smooth to the touch. Often this means that handles are painted to give a nice, smooth finish. You’ll want to look for stainless steel blades – even if they are plated with titanium or chrome, a stainless steel core to the blades is key as they’ll be naturally resistant to corrosion.
While the steel industry isn’t currently the most eco-friendly, you won’t find decent scissors in any other material. It’s therefore worth looking into how and where the scissors are made.
Scissors produced en-masse in large factories likely have huge carbon costs involved, especially cheap scissors. These big factories typically don’t have any facility for undertaking tasks which increase the lifespan of their products either – like sharpening services. They rely on you, the consumer, either buying new scissors or buying your own sharpening tools – which of course, they’ll happily sell to you at a cost. When selecting a scissor brand, it’s also worth considering where the scissors are made – if you’re in Europe and the scissors are made in China, there’s going to be a lot of carbon emissions involved in getting them halfway around the world to you and you’re certainly not going to be sending them back for repairs or sharpening during their usable lifetime. Not to mention you have no idea what the working conditions are like in a large, faceless factory.
That’s why I chose to stock scissors by William Whiteley and Sons; the oldest scissor brand in Europe, they produce each pair on site at their Sheffield factory using similar techniques to how scissors were made when the business first opened its doors in 1760. Their staff are highly skilled craftspeople who produce the scissors by hand in small batches, ensuring that quality is maintained throughout production. All of their scissors are designed to last a lifetime – and as such, they also offer a sharpening service for every pair, so you can keep your lovely fabric shears as sharp as the day your grandparents received them! Jokes aside, these snips are the most sustainable option I have come across to date and I’m sure they will only get more sustainable as advances are made in efforts to decarbonise steel and make packaging better for the planet.
Plastic packaging is ubiquitous and often completely un-recyclable, certainly through home recycling collections. It can also be really sharp and difficult to remove from your scissors – usually requiring another pair of scissors to cut it open…I’m sure the irony of this can’t be lost on those who decided to do this. Strong cardboard is a much better and more sustainable option – not least because it’s getting easier and cheaper to produce from completely recycled paper. I chose to stock my scissors in cardboard boxes because it’s so much easier to recycle and I remove the few minor bits of plastic (cable ties and sometimes plastic blade protectors) and replace them with recycled cotton twine, which does exactly the same job of keeping the scissors securely in place during transit – whilst also being reasonably straighforward to remove without needing another pair of scissors. So far, I’ve collected up the cable ties and blade protectors so that at some point I can get it all properly recycled by a commercial recycler.
Extending the lifespan of your scissors
Sustainability isn’t just about how something is produced, it’s about the use and lifespan of items. The longer the useable lifespan something has, the less often you’ll need to throw it away and buy something new. Like most things, if you treat your scissors carefully and with respect, they’ll repay the favour with many more years of faithful service.
Firstly, don’t throw your scissors around, literally or figuratively. Knocks and bangs can cause problems with the alignment of the blades, so do your best to prevent any from happening. Ideally, this means your scissors have a dedicated home which they return to immediately after being used – my fabric shears hang on my pegboard, while my thread clips live in a pocket in the mat underneath my sewing machine. As I add to my personal scissor collection, I’m considering how and where best to keep things; paper scissors might be best kept with pattern drafting tools, while buttonhole scissors might live on the pegboard with my fabric shears, and embroidery scissors in an embroidery project bag. Wherever your scissors belong after use, make sure it’s somewhere safe and away from pets or small children, as inquisitive paws and hands can cause bumps and bangs to your shears (in addition to being very dangerous for the curious soul playing with them).
Don’t be tempted to sharpen your scissors using any unconventional methods. I’ve seen people advocating using scissors on scrunched up aluminium foil in order to sharpen them – and frankly it just sounds like an accident waiting to happen! There are professional sharpeners whose job it is to ensure your scissors a lovely and sharp, so they have a nice long useable lifespan. You might find most of these businesses are geared towards hairdressers or other industries which use scissors a lot, but they should still be able to sharpen your scissors for you. It’s like servicing your sewing machine – while you can keep your scissors in good nick by yourself, they’ll cut like a dream when sharpened properly by a professional. Depending on how often you use your scissors, you should only need to sharpen them periodically; if you work as a pattern cutter or tailor and use your scissors every day, you might need them sharpening every couple of months or so, while if you’re simply making things in your own time, you might only need it doing once a year, or even less.
Keeping your scissors clean should be straighforward if they’re only being used for their intended purpose, but it might also be worth popping a drop of oil on their hinge point every now and again, just to keep it moving smoothly. Like when oiling your sewing machine, you’ll only need a drop or two – you definitely won’t want to overdo it as you don’t want to get oil all over your makes! If you aren’t confident enough to do this yourself, you could always nicely ask for this to be done when your scissors are sharpened – or better yet, ask your sharpener for tips on how to do it so you can gain in confidence.
So there you have it, all the things you need to think about when choosing sustainable scissors. Most of these are fairly common sense, though they’re not necessarily things we might normally consider. We’ve gotten a bit too used to the availability of products and producing things en masse, so we just don’t think about these things as much now as our great-grandparents might have done – but that doesn’t mean we can’t alter our mindset to give more consideration to how and where things are made. It’s not about being nationalistic, though British manufacturing could do with the boost that buying locally gives it. It’s about the impact buying cheaply produced items has, both on the planet and on the people producing those items in the first place.