Grace Horne’s “Cocoon #2” incorporates felt, wool, silk and aluminum for the cocoon handle. The 2.9-inch blade is RWL-34 stainless. (Point Seven photo)
Grace Horne is an artist, embracing the basic elements of her subject and then allowing them to take flight in her imagination. For two decades, she has plied her craft in the cradle of knifemaking, Sheffield, England.
Completing her college degree in design, craft and technology required a project, and she ambitiously chose a set of three slip joints with damascus blades, making the steel with artist and blacksmith Richard Quinnell at his forge in the Fire and Iron Gallery in Surrey. By 1994, Horne had relocated to Sheffield to seek an apprenticeship in knifemaking with Stan Shaw, perhaps the last of the legendary “Little Mesters,” the independent Sheffield knifemakers who helped establish the city’s storied reputation for quality cutlery through those many years. (See “Stan Shaw: Little Mester of Sheffield, March 1994 BLADE®.)
Though Shaw was unable to hire an apprentice, he gave Horne a box of old blades to work with, some having been forged a century before. “I decided to take a more academic approach,” she recalled, “completing both a knife-related masters degree and Ph.D. at Sheffield Hallam University. My work was workshop based, and the material I ended up working with was layers of carbon steel separated by 99.99 percent pure silver foil. Visually, I like steel and silver together. It is a combination I have often come back to over the years. But if the two main research questions were ‘Can it be done?’ and ‘Was it worth the effort?’ then the answer would have to be ‘Yes.’”
Horne produces only about 10 to 12 knives each year and does not accept custom orders. She does not sell through purveyors but maintains a list of people to notify when a knife is available or when her online portfolio is updated. She describes her work as material-and-concept driven yet deeply embedded with the historical Sheffield knifemaking tradition. While knives are one of her loves, another is textiles, and a recent foray combined the two.
“A couple of years ago,” she recalled, “while my new workshop was being converted from an old Victorian public toilet, I didn’t have knifemaking space but my textile studio was still accessible. This led to my first pieces that cross the boundaries between knives and textiles. These modified Spyderco knives were the result of a project to visually represent the value of knives as everyday tools. During a three-week period I collected everything that I cut with the knife, and at the end of each week I made all the bits into new scales for that knife and then went on to the next one.”
The modified knives actually incorporate pieces of items such as corrugated board, duct tape, envelopes, and packaging mesh into the handles, and the effort has been followed by a series of “fluffy” knives. Since knife laws are restrictive in Britain and the sight of a pocketknife can elicit comments, Horne covered the Spyderco UKPK that she often carries with woolen felt.
“I love felt making,” she said. “It is versatile and the final product can be very hard wearing. My complete knife just gets washed when it’s dirty, and how can anyone be scared of a woolly knife?”
From a woolly knife, the innovative artist progressed to “cocoon knives” that she characterized as soft, warm and visually non-threatening. “Most of the foundation work is a woolen felt,” she commented. “I use a combination of wet, needle and nuno felting to create the desired effect, incorporating silk, cotton and other meshes into the structure of the felt. The surfaces are then stitched, reworked, embroidered and embellished.
“Folding knives fascinate me because they are all about change—open and closed, dangerous and safe, big and small. A cocoon holds a similar fascination; it is full of potential to be something completely different.”
When she completed her academic studies, Horne said she recognized her education had been not only about the production of metal, but also about the creative process. This led to the keeping of extensive notes and sketches.
“I rarely take on commissions but, if I do, then part of the creative dialogue is often conducted through photos of drawings from my sketchbook, and then photographs as the work progresses,” she related. “The story of each knife is important—why I made it, the inspiration behind it, what makes it different from the other knives I have made. Because of this, each knife has its own little book containing vital statistics, life story, background information and pictures.”
Every knife Horne makes is one of a kind, like the creative energy she channels into her work. “Much of my work develops like a series of slightly misheard whispers,” she smiled. “The title of a picture or a written description of an event will create an image in my head that often is very different from the one that would have developed from a visual input. A physical event becomes a written or spoken distillation and is then reinvented as a new object. Very often, when I track back, I am surprised at how far my creative process has taken me from the original source.”
Though she never makes the same knife twice, Horne does see recurring themes in her work, and she revisits basic forms from time to time. She does not operate a forge in her shop but does enjoy making her own pattern-welded steel. Award-winning damascus makers Daryl Meier, Hank Knickmeyer and Ed Schempp work with her in steel making after some “gentle coaxing and tuition” on Horne’s part. She also likes to use RWL-34 and other Swedish stainless steels for knife blades.
Most of the work she does is by hand or with a small surface grinder, and she has plans to have a belt grinder up and running soon. A visit to her shop reveals a number of hand tools used by jewelers, cutlers and watchmakers through the generations. An old Sheffield knifemaker would probably feel right at home there.
Annual trips to the BLADE Show are vital in maintaining contact with other knifemakers and supplement her use of social media such as Facebook. When she comes to the USA, she has knives photographed by Point Seven and catches up with others in the global knifemaking community. She also attends the KnivesUK show and the SICAC show in Paris.
“I’m not entirely sure what my knives will look like next year,” Horne laughed. “I’ve started playing with glove leathers, and I fancy incorporating some visual elements from the corsets that I make. One thing I am certain about is that, yet again, they will be completely different from the stuff I’m working on at the moment!”—by Mike Haskew
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