Exploring the cutting edge of bespoke steelmaking in Sheffield

Cutler Michael May: checking a bowie knife
Cutler Michael May: checking a bowie knife

Hidden away in a grimy yard a few hundred yards from Sheffield city centre, up a flight of stairs just wide enough for a couple of whippets to pass, Michael May is carrying on what he calls the 250-year-old Sheffield tradition of making pocket knives.

“The city was built on this – there were thousands of men who could make pocket knives,” he said.

“But now I don’t know if people in Sheffield or anywhere else realise there are still people doing it.”

In the Year of Making, Michael would like it known that ‘Made in Sheffield’ still has the reputation for quality among knife buyers and collectors, that worldwide demand is still out there, and that by his reckoning there are still at least a dozen Sheffield makers of pocket and pen knives.

If you were a potential knife buyer in London, Asia or America, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that the trade was on its last legs after reading a series of mournful media articles over recent years.

Michael is very keen that the ‘last of the Little Mesters’ headlines should now be buried, at least for the foreseeable future.

Technically, since he has his own mark and has worked in the trade for over eight years, at the age of 37 he is himself a Little Mester, and is in the process of training up new knife makers at Taylors Eye Witness. Arthur Wright’s and Egginton Brothers are doing the same, said Michael.

“The more people know there are still traditional knife makers using traditional methods and traditional patterns in Sheffield, then the more likely it is that they will be able to continue.”

Michael’s path into the business came in the time honoured Sheffield way: he had relatives in the trade (at Taylors), and after studying music at college, “a position came up in pen and pocket,” he said.

“Becoming a knife maker wasn’t intentional, but I found I really enjoyed it.”

He took a few years out for a masters degree in working class cultural history, with a dissertation on brass bands in the British Empire. (He’s also a cornet player with the City of Sheffield Band). He returned to work on the premier range at Taylor’s, and is now also making his own designs at his new workshop in Portland Works.

This week the building, which was saved following a campaign in 2013, was awarded £100,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore its roof.

After meeting the well-known Sheffield knife maker Trevor Ablett, Michael was offered Trevor’s tools and some of his blades and materials when Trevor retired due to ill health last year. “Trevor had seen my work and said he thought it was really good, and said he’d like me to work with him.” It wasn’t to be, as Trevor sadly died last October.

“To be considered to carry on from him is a great privilege,” said Michael.

Trevor Ablett was famous for saying his work was ‘nothing fancy’ but Michael insists he won’t be selling himself short, and aims to make ‘posh’ as well as ‘basic bread and butter stuff.’

Michael’s salesrooms are his social media pages (along with the Famous Sheffield Shop) but the no-nonsense Stocksbridge-bred student of working class culture prefers to avoid the contemporary word for ‘handmade’.

“To me, these days an ‘artisan’ is just a middle class person doing what was once a working class person’s job and charging three times the price for it.

“My granddad was a baker in Glasgow, and if he’d called himself an artisan I don’t think he’d have lasted very long.”

Artisan or not, Michael feels there’s a growing interest in handmade quality goods. “People are sick and tired of buying something cheap to have for just a few years. They’re saying it’s better to buy something a bit more expensive that will last, and it’s better for the environment as well.”

The trade was in danger when works were closing in the 1970s, but times have changed, said Michael, adding that Sheffield pocket knives appear to be ‘coming back as a thing.’ A handmade Sheffield knife still looks good for modern Sheffielders, and pencils still need sharpening, apples still need peeling, and nowadays clothing tags and online delivery packages cry out for a pocket knife, say today’s cutlers.

Michael’s order book is growing, and he’s thinking of taking on his own apprentice. He also has a knife in the Made in Sheffield exhibition at the Millennium Galleries.

“I absolutely love my job, and I feel I have a responsibility to continue with the trade as I know how important it is to Sheffield. I don’t want knife making to die out, it’s what this city was built on. I think we should be shouting about it.”

Visit http://michaelmayknives.com for details.