Since Chaucer referred to a ‘Sheffield thwitel baar’ in The Reeve’s Tale, the name of Sheffield has been synonymous with knife-making. As the historian Mary Walton wrote, perhaps Sheffield itself, or the Company of Cutlers, would be willing to pay if it were possible to call him up ‘so that he might explain why he used the phrase.’ Now, in the 21st century, that tradition is carried on by just a handful of craftsmen.

“I just want to make a better knife,” says Michael May. He is the most modern of Sheffield knife-makers, having recently taken the leap from local company Taylor’s Eye Witness into exclusively making knives stamped with his own name from his workshop in Portland Works. Portland, he says, was the first works to house the entire process of knife-making in one building. It’s appropriate, therefore, that he carries on the tradition from there.

Not much has changed in the processes of knife-making since Portland Works was built in 1879. Although some of May’s tools are electric, there would have been a belt-driven equivalent even then. There is no steam engine to drive the belt now, but there is nothing available to May that would not have been in the hands of the mesters 150 years ago, perhaps even longer.

“It’s about quality,” he says, when asked about the competition from overseas. “The steel I use sharpens to a fine edge and holds its edge well.” The decorative quality of his work is equally outstanding. He has had a piece on display at the Millennium Gallery and has now attracted the attention of the national newspapers. His knives, though, are tools as well. “People should use them,” he says. “If you’ve bought a knife, it wants to be used.”

Perhaps people who buy his knives will struggle to accept even the slightest scratch or dullness on the blade. “That’s part of what it is. That’s the history of it.” His work may be that of a master craftsman, but he rejects the word ‘artisan’ altogether. “That’s middle-class people doing working-class jobs,” he says pointedly.

Even 11 years into his career, Michael doesn’t see himself as the finished article. “I’m always learning. I found Youtube videos of Trevor Ablett working, so I took a few things from that. But a lot of it is trying things and finding what works and what doesn’t.” Although he never had the chance to work with Trevor – a maker of some renown, once described as the last pocket knife maker in Britain – May recently acquired a lot of his equipment, carrying another piece of that long and noble tradition into the new millennium.

These days, you are as likely to find an artist or a distillery occupying the units at Portland Works as you are to encounter someone working with the steel for which this city is famous. There can be no doubt that Sheffield’s renewed confidence in itself is shown by the growth of the individual maker in competition with giant global corporations. 2016’s Year of the Maker was a sign of the resurgence of a desire to buy truly outstanding, independently-made products. Michael May’s knives recall the historic pre-eminence of Sheffield as a sign of quality.

One might tell a true Sheffielder by handing them a knife and watching their response. Sheffield teaches you to turn the blade to the light and check for its name. Michael May is an ambassador, reigniting a tradition once in danger of disappearing, putting that name out around the world on a new generation of blades.

michaelmayknives.com
@sheffieldcutler

Andrew Richardson