While these blades date from the turn of the 19th century, tailors’ sheers remain prodigious in size. Ms. Collenette recounted the shock of the Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson on first wielding the hefty tools: “He said, with all the football training he did, nothing prepared him for picking up those blades.”
Ms. Collenette’s fascination with scissors was first piqued by an intricate cut-paper scene of a country house, made by Anna Maria Garthwaite and now part of the collections at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Garthwaite, who was 17 when she pieced the scene together, went on to become a noted silk designer. She would have cut the paper with tiny scissors “the size of a key,” Ms. Collenette said. Seeing continuity between Garthwaite’s cut-paper work and the fine textile designs she would later produce, the curator said she came to “realize how important scissors were in creative development.”
“Once you’ve made a cut with scissors, it’s a commitment,” she said. “There’s no going back.”
“The Secret Life of Scissors” blends display styles of the 19th-century hardware store, puppet theater and a cabinet of curiosities. Scissors appear as both tools and characters, alongside storybooks, film stills and details of their making.
For a postulant monk or nun there is a pair of hairdressing scissors that closes in the shape of the cross, a gift before their hair was ceremonially cut when they were received as a novice. “Without scissors, man is uncivilized — almost bestial, unkempt,” Ms. Collenette said, citing the title character in Heinrich Hoffmann’s sinister book of verse “Der Struwwelpeter.” Shock-headed Peter, “with his nasty hair and hands,” is a cautionary totem for any child who resists the cutting of locks or fingernails.
As a segment in the show devoted to crime suggests, scissors, historically, were seen as a woman’s tool — and weapon. Alfred Hitchcock, speaking of his film “Dial M for Murder,” said: “A murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without hollandaise sauce.”
There were likely good foundations for such violent associations. Women fallen on hard times used their sewing skills to support themselves. Visiting disreputable and perhaps even dangerous neighborhoods, the scissors they carried “became a means of protection,” Ms. Collenette said. At the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, she acquired calligraphy scissors that close into a single pointed blade, at once elegant and lethal.
In Sheffield, for centuries the center of British scissors making, the contemporary cutler and corset maker Grace Horne makes scissors both classic and fanciful, among them a set of murderous blades in tribute to this double role. Her Twisted Seamstress scissors snick shut into a businesslike dagger, with the sensually curved pivot between blades and handle encased in corset-stitched leather.
Sheffield is still home to Ernest Wright & Son, scissors makers dating to the 19th century. A short film by the late photographer Shaun Bloodworth shows the painstaking role of the Wright company’s “putter togetherer” of scissors as he goes through the long process of adjustment and refinement that ensures blades snip straight and true.
Designed to fit the hand, scissors invite our touch. The heirlooms in Ms. Collenette’s collection are smooth and curiously warm at the handles, as if relaying accumulated body heat from centuries of use. “The Secret Life of Scissors” is a small exhibition, but aptly so. Ms. Collenette cites the writer Orhan Pamuk’s “Modest Manifesto for Museums,” in which he cautions against grandness and glorification: “‘We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful.’”
Ms. Collenette said: “We have all these large museums, but there’s something really special about personal stories. I think that’s particularly the case of scissors. They’re an extension of your hand. You literally see the personal touch.”
“The Secret Life of Scissors” is on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, Feb. 9 to May 6.