The renewed interest in old-school craftsmanship and earthy manual skills has created some curious new stars and scenarios this past 12 months. We have seen The New Yorker acclaim the agricultural style mag Modern Farmer as a publication of the moment; young bearded hipsters savouring real ales like old Camra diehards; and, at one festival last summer, the spectacle of Andy Weatherall DJing next to a woman showing the audience how to make vegetable dyes for their clothes.
For spring 2015, we have a new hero: Trevor Ablett, 72, one of Sheffield’s last artisan cutlers, hero to the new generation of craft-fans and reinventor of the pocketknife as object of desire.
[Above: Cutler Trevor Ablett, 72, handmakes his knives from brass, steel, wood and bone so they’ll work for a lifetime]
Based in a workshop near Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium, Ablett is the last independent cutler (a “Little Mester” as they are known in Sheffield) making pocketknives in a city long-famous for its steel and cutlery. His knives are handmade from brass, steel, wood, bone and horn and come in a few different styles of blade and handle — “Pruner”, “Clip point”, “Lambfoot”, “Ettrick”, “Farmers”. They all have a blade hinged at one end, which is what makes them pocketknives (penknives have blades at both ends). The knives are also all made for working. Ablett could make ornamental items for the lucrative collectors’ market but, he says in his rich South Yorkshire accent, even when he was starting out as a 15-year-old in 1957, he “always liked the idea of what I made being used. If you use gold, silver and ivory, no one can use them. To make good-class, working knives that other people find useful makes me proud.”
Ablett bats away questions about knife crime — “I’ve made tens of thousands for the Scouts and there wasn’t a problem there” — pointing out he sells not only to people who might only sharpen pencils with them, but also to customers who use them for serious work, like gardeners and farmers. In the last two years, as fewer and fewer cutlers remain working in the city, Ablett has seen interest pick up, with new retailers and collectors ordering. People from all over Europe request to visit his workshop. Michael Portillo came recently and stayed all afternoon. Artisan woodturner Robin Wood, chairman of the Heritage Crafts Council, champions Ablett’s “fantastic” work.
There is no doubting the solidity and robustness of the knives, their blades engraved with Ablett’s name and the Sheffield Crest. A few years ago, a man drove to his workshop from Milton Keynes to show him an old pocketknife.
The blade was somewhat worn but then, as the visitor explained, it had been used in the jungles of Borneo throughout World War II, and back at home in the six decades after. “I gave him a new one,” Ablett says. “I like seeing them when they’ve had a lifetime of use. It makes me feel I’m doing something worthwhile.”
Trevor Ablett’s knives are available from steelcitycutlery.com