From a commercial standpoint, Iris Hantverk’s products have only one problem: they last too long. By purchasing one of its brushes, you might never have to buy another again. “For us, it would be better if people bought new ones a bit more often,” laughs CEO Friedrike Roedenbeck. Fortunately, the problem has not affected sales. Iris Hantverk brushes – manufactured by hand in the same fashion as they were when the company was founded in the late 1800s – are sold around the world by retailers such as Labour and Wait in the UK and Restoration Hardware in the US. Hantverk customers appreciate design but also want the unrivalled feel and quality of the natural materials the company employs.
“Cleaning brushes are often not very pretty, so you want to hide them in cupboards. We want to make brushes that you can leave out, so that they are easily reachable,” says Roedenbeck.
Following a Swedish tradition, Iris Hantverk brushes are made by visually impaired craftsmen and women. During the 19th century basket and brush-making were the most common professions for the blind because the process relies on tactile skills. Iris Hantverk has upheld this and today employs 15 staff in the Stockholm workshop.
“We train the workers here. They work alongside an experienced brush-maker for about four to six months,” says Roedenbeck. “But not everyone is suitable. You need to be good with your hands.”
The brushes are made from oak, birch or beech and designed to sit well in the hand. A bath brush requires soft horse hair but heavy-duty cleaning brushes call for rough tampico fibre. The wood is all Swedish, but the material for the bristles is imported from China and Mexico because it is either the best of its kind or unavailable in Sweden.
After they are carved, the brush handles are burn-stamped with the Iris Hantverk logo and oiled or waxed. Then the binders fasten the bristles by using a stainless steel thread. Finally, the bristles are clipped neatly. “Originally, we used yarn to tie up the bristles, but it breaks too easily,” explains Roedenbeck. “The clipping machine is another improvement that we have introduced.”
The brush collection consists of more than 100 different items – the brush and dustpan set is a favourite and the classic bath and nail brushes are bestsellers. The company works with designers to develop new models, a strategy Roedenbeck introduced in the early 1990s. At about the same time, it also started visiting trade fairs to find customers overseas.
“Had we not started to market ourselves abroad, I’m not sure we would still exist today. That’s where all the big customers are,” says Roedenbeck. The company is already facing its next challenge. Throughout the years, Iris Hantverk has received state subsidies for its work with the visually impaired but in 2011 those will be taken away.
“We are expensive, even today, compared with a regular brush you buy at the supermarket. But in the future, it’s a matter of us getting more customers to understand how good we are,” concludes Roedenbeck.
Polished perfection: the process
The wooden handles are carved by carpenters, after which the visually impaired craftsmen apply the Iris Hantverk stamp.
Sealing the wood
Depending on the type of brush, the brush heads are waxed or dipped into paraffin oil and left to dry.
Bristles are secured with stainless steel thread using a crochet hook. Skilled workers bind a brush in only a few minutes.
The brushes are packaged by the plastic wrapping machine and sent to the two shops in Stockholm, or to customers abroad.
Bristling with pride
Four favourite brushes
Dustpan and brush set – Iris Hantverk, Sweden
Designed by Tove Adman and Hans Edblad, this dustpan and brush set is Iris Hantverk’s best seller. The brush is made from oil-treated beech and stiff horsehair and the pan is available in a range of five colours that are easy on the eye.
Nail brush – Acca Kappa, Italy
The 141-year-old family-run Italian company Acca Kappa is the chosen brush-maker of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Acca Kappa’s 1869 Series nail brush – handmade from East African wenge wood – sports stiff wild boar bristles that guarantee you’ll scrub up well.
Shaving brush – Plisson, France
Handmade since 1808 in its Brittany workshop, Plisson badger-hair brushes are synonymous with high-quality shaving. The French firm’s classic shaving brush is available in five different grades of hair quality with an extensive choice of handles including horn, wood and tortoiseshell.
Shoe brush – Edoya, Japan
A small team of skilled craftsmen hand-make each brush for the Tokyo-based brush firm Edoya. Handles for their esteemed shoe brushes are made from buna wood and bristles are either pig, horse, goat or pony hair depending on what material your shoe is. The brushes are used by Aoyama’s specialist shoe-care salon Brift H (see Issue 22).