Medieval London


Shears picture 1 (1).jpg

Fig. 1. Iron shears with two long blades and a circular knob at the end of their handle. At the Museum of London.

Unlike shears today, which are made of carbon or stainless steel, medieval shears were made of wrought iron with a more solid iron, specifically carbon steel, on the cutting edge. The reason two different irons were used was because wrought iron cannot undergo flame hardening, whereas carbon steel can undergo both flame hardening and tempering, enabling the cutting edge to be tougher.[1] These medieval shears were 137mm in length, 20mm wide, and 5mm deep, and were manufactured by smiths.[2]

Smiths typically imported iron for shears from Spain or Sweden, as it was not economically viable for them to use their own material or harvest it from the lackluster and ill-suited ores of medieval England. Medieval shears consisted of six parts: the bow, arm, blade, handle, recess, blade top, and tip. A smith, who would work on a flat surface for cutting and a chamfer for edges, first took a single piece of wrought iron to create a blank of the arms and blades of the shear. The left blade of the shear would always overlap the right. Next the carbon steel cutting edge was welded onto the blank. It was welded using a scarf joint, which in welding is when chamfered edges at opposing angles are joined together, different from a butt joint, which is simply two flat ends joined together. A scarf joint meant that less steel had to be used, making it economically viable. It was very important to cool the steel quickly after welding it onto the blank so that it could become hard, however it was also important to temper with the steel after cooling to restore it from being brittle, which happened as a side effect of the rapid cooling. Delicate and gradual heating was how this tempering occurred. The shear was then properly shaped.[3] 

The blacksmith was a respected member of society.  Smiths created for all members of society; both simple farmers and kings all relied on the smith. They went through intense training and in large towns like London were organized into different guilds, with the smith that would create shears often belonging to a guild of Ironsmiths. Smiths had ranks of apprentice, journeyman, and master. A smith would get their start by taking on an apprenticeship with a master. Not every smith became a master, to do so required someone with a lot of money to sponsor them. Apprenticeships were competitive, and lackluster smiths were scrutinized heavily as their poor performance reflected badly on their master, and hurt the master financially.[4]

Most shears were probably used for shearing sheep’s wool, which was a major export of England. In a town like London, however, shears would have been used in the cloth-finishing industry and the garment-making industry, each of which required different types of shears. The type of shears used to shear sheep and finish cloth were larger than the shears used by tailors to cut cloth, which used two separate pieces of metal joined by a pin, allowing the tailor to use them smoothly like we use scissors today.[5]

Before cloth could be sheared in the cloth-finishing industry, the cloth had to undergo the fulling process. The purpose of fulling cloth was to make it felted and cleansed. A fuller would achieve this by stepping on the cloth repeatedly with soap and water. The cloth would then be washed, stretched, and dried on a specially made frame. Finally, teasels, a flowering plant with very prickly leaves, were used by the fuller to  brush cloth, which raised all its loose fibers. The cloth was now ready for the shearmen.The purpose of shearing the cloth after it's been fulled is to give it a smooth-finish. This was done by both shearmen and fullers, who often formed guilds together that incorporated both professions. However, shearmen were specialized and had more experience. The shearing process was not easy, and since sharp-tipped shears were used, if the shearmen slipped, the cloth would be punctured. As a result of the experience-gap between shearmen and fullers, shearmen would only shear high quality cloth, while fullers would shear lower quality, common cloth.[6]

Shears were also essential in the garment-making industry, specifically being used by tailors. Shears were convenient for tailors because unlike many other stages of the textile industry which involved heavy and large machines, shears were small and simple, and only needed to be by a tailor used in conjunction with needles, threads, and a cutting board. Tailors would also often have with them a sharpening stone to prevent the shears from becoming dull.[7]

--Sebastian Guccione


1. Cowgill, “Knives and Scabbards,” 8.

2. Museum of London, “Shears.”

3. Cowgill, “Knives and Scabbards,” 8-11.

4. Cahill “Evolution of Materials in Arms and Armors: Medieval Era Battle Axes,” 49-50.

5. Davies, “The Tailors of London and Their Guild, c. 1300-1500,” 231-232.

6. Swanson, Medieval Artisans: an Urban Class in Late Medieval England, 40-43.

7. Davies, “The Tailors of London and Their Guild, c. 1300-1500,” 232-233.

Works Cited

Cahill, Christopher, Bryan Jung, Omesh Kamat, and Miles Schuleret al. “Evolution of Materials in Arms and Armors: Medieval Era Battle Axe.” Interactive Project for B.S. Degree, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2015, at

Cowgill, Jane. Knives and Scabbards Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 1. Richmond, United Kingdom: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1987.

Davies, Matthew P. “The Tailors of London and Their Guild, c. 1300-1500.”  Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 1994. 

"Late 14th c Hose & Hood Shop (Image)," from  F. Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), p. 10: at 

“Shears.” Museum of London,, Accessed November 1st, 2020.

Swanson, Heather. Medieval Artisans: an Urban Class in Late Medieval England. B. Blackwell, 1989. 

Thursfield, Sarah. "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant: Making Common Garments, 1200-1500," reproducing British Library, MS Harley 6563, f. 65.“A Tailor.” The Medieval Taylor's Assistant, New York City,

"Women Shearing a Sheep." British Library Harley 1892, f. 27v.

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