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Success stories / Iris Hantverk, hand over eye

Iris Hantverk, hand over eye

Published on 16 January 2021 Share


Brushes of every imaginable kind have been emerging from Iris Hantverk’s Swedish workshop for over a century, with current owners, Sara and Richard, now doing everything in their power to keep this highly specialised artisan craft alive.

Which item can be found in every room of the house, is used every single day, and was invented ten thousand years ago? The brush. The simple, multifarious, fascinating brush. Swedish firm Iris Hantverk first started manufacturing them at the end of the XIXth century, and flicking through their catalogue is a veritable ode to creativity. For the bathroom: facial massage brushes, body massage brushes, nailbrushes, make-up brushes, face brushes, endless bath brushes and even a tiny heart baby brush. For the kitchen: vegetable brushes, mushroom brushes, washing-up brushes, polishing brushes, baby bottle brushes, pastry brushes, crumb brushes... Round ones, flat ones, ones that clean the bottom of decanters, bendy ones, to chase the dust from hard-to-reach corners, one to dust computer keyboards, another to brush off benches, clothes brushes, shoe brushes, car windscreen cleaning brushes. The list just goes on and on. The human ingenuity invested in dreaming up all these different combinations of bristles and a wooden base really is something to behold. 

The brush-making process has been industrialised for a good many years, but at Iris Hantverk, time has stood still. Hantverk means “by hand”, whilst Iris alludes to the iris in the eye. Since the day the firm was first founded, Iris Hantverk’s brushes have been handmade by visually impaired craftsmen. Blind workers’ sense of touch and dexterity is truly second-to-none, and their ultra-sensitive fingers give these handcrafted pieces a thoroughly unique dimension. The firm’s story is closely entwined with that of a number of Swedish associations, such as De Blindas Förening (“the association for the blind”, founded in 1889), which organised and set up the country’s first-ever charities for the visually impaired. In the early XXth century, when the industrial revolution began to sweep across Sweden, visually impaired artisans got caught up in the rural exodus and started flocking to the cities, taking with them their traditional brush- and basket-making skills. The foundation encouraged them to integrate modern society, get actively involved in community life and make a living from their work. It was rare for someone visually impaired to be given the opportunity to earn a wage producing brushes. The State subsidised their employment as of the early XXth century. During the firm’s heyday in the 1950s, it employed as many as 700 artisans.

“Everyone’s faith in the company and the hard work they were willing to put in convinced us we should try to save the business”

Every brush starts with a base, made from oiled oak, beech or birch, into which some 40 to 250 holes are drilled. A hook is then used to thread bunches of bristles or fibres through the wooden base. An old machine dispenses the little bunches, which the worker secures onto the base using a stainless steel wire.  There are different fibres for different uses, and they can be supple, soft or hard. These fibres are sourced all over the world and are all 100% natural, ranging from cereal root, coconut fibre and tampico fibre to palm fibre, horse hair and goat hair. Each artisan has their own personal favourites. For Turgut, 42, who lost his sight at just 6 years of age, it’s the white horsehair pastry brush. He can make 300 in a single day. Since the Swedish job centre first pointed him in Iris Hantverk’s direction 20 years ago, he’s developed the skills to produce any kind of brush using any kind of material. His expertise took just three months to acquire compared to the usual six. But the champion of champions would have to be Negassi. This 52-year-old Eritrean, who lost his sight aged just 17, beat all the records by learning the technique in... a day and a half. Today, he’s not only responsible for training new recruits, but is also an expert at repairing all the machines. 

The Stockholm workshop has, indeed, been the backdrop for many a success story. But the firm’s story almost came to an end at the same time as the government subsidies for employing blind workers, back in 2012. Two employees, Sara Edhäll and Richard Sparrenhök, simply couldn’t bear the thought of all that expertise being lost and the workers being laid off. Sara had originally joined the firm thirty years previously, having secured a student job working in the two Stockholm stores whilst studying economy. By 2012, she was managing both stores as well as heading up the purchasing team. Richard was also a buyer, and in charge of production. They both took a substantial risk by remortgaging their homes. Their number one priority was to save the artisans’ jobs. They reorganized the way in which the firm was managed, taking on the work of the entire Board of Directors themselves. Last but not least, they launched an online shop in Sweden. “Everyone’s faith in the company and the hard work they were willing to put in convinced us we should try to save the business”, explains Sara. The first two years were an uphill struggle, making the Maison&Objet trade fair a crucial date on the calendar. “We’d been exhibiting in Paris since 2003”, she explains. “Trade fairs have always been our best hunting ground for finding new clients. Even though we’re now able to sell our products worldwide over the internet, it’s not the same as actually meeting the faces behind the brand and getting hands-on with the products. That really hit home back in 2012 when we met the buyers for a leading British department store that hadn’t been selling our brushes for years. They ended up placing a huge order, and even gave us a fantastic window display at their store. Things snowballed from there, so I guess it was the first sign of things starting to pick up again.”  

Today, Iris Hantverk is all about strong brand values: strength, solidity and honesty. “For us, solidity is about creating products that are environmentally and socially sustainable”, Sara explains. “We have a responsibility towards all those behind Iris Hantverk’s success, which is why we encourage our business partners to adopt environmentally and socially responsible practices.” Her proudest moment to date? “Having successfully weathered the stormy years with environmentally friendly household goods. It just goes to show that remaining true to our core business paid off in the end.”


By Caroline Tossan
Illustration ©Sarah Bouillaud

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