Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sharp as a razor

Certain towns become famous for certain things. Shoes in Northampton for instance and cotton in Manchester. In the modern, globalized world that may no longer be the case but it certainly was.

Here in Spain it's the same. Albacete is the capital of one of the five provinces of Castilla la Mancha.  Albacete is well known for its knife making industry a fame that it shares with two other towns in Castilla la Mancha – Toledo and Santa Cruz de Mudela. If you check out the traditional folding penknives or the kitchen knives on the stalls at any of the local fairs in this area during the summer you will probably find that they carry the AB logo to show that they are from Albacete.

Although there were a few knife makers in Albacete in the 16th Century the real boom for hand-crafted knives started in the 17th Century and reached a peak in the 18th Century with a gradual change through the 19th Century to more mass produced items. In the 20th Century the individual workshops, where craftsmen hammered out unique knives, were overtaken by a few large factories where the blades were stamped out from sheet steel and the whole process mechanized.

In the 17th and 18th centuries getting an apprenticeship to a master knife maker was a serious affair. A contract would be drawn up between a boy's father or guardian and the knife maker with a contract signed by various witnesses in front of a notary. There were stiff penalties on both sides should the agreement break down. In return for providing the lad with food, clothing, lodgings, training and an “honest life” the boy would promise to serve his master for the rest of his life. At the end of the apprenticeship, when a sample of the apprentice's work had been checked by independent master craftsmen the apprentice would be admitted to the guild and, as one last gesture, his master would supply him with a full outfit of new clothes right down to the underpants and socks.

Although the traditional knife from Albacete is the folding penknife various designs of  knives with fixed blades, hunting knives, daggers, scissors and candle wick trimmers have all been important to the industry in the town. They seem to have left larger weapons, such as swords, to the craftsmen of Toledo.

In the years when the train revolutionised the method, the ease and the speed at which goods and people could travel one of the hallmarks of Albacete train station were the station vendors wearing belts stuffed full of knives of every shape and size. This tradition didn't die out until new legislation in 1981 banned flick knives and put restrictions on the sales of knives which drove the last of the sellers from the station platforms. It wasn't the first time that legislation had caused the industry problems. In 1721, for instance, Philip V made it illegal to carry knives, daggers and other blades with the punishment being six years prison for a noble and the same time rowing the Spanish naval galleys for commoners – effectively a death sentence.

One final word. Knives are a traditional gift from Albaceteños, the people from Albacete, but should you ever be offered a knife make sure that you pay for it. The smallest coin in your pocket will do but the purchase will ensure that your friendship is not cut by the knife. At least that's what the tradition says.

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