Brushing Up

Goodee Presents

Brushing Up

At Iris Hantverk, social goals meet sustainable design without compromise.

Words by Eve Thomas 

Photography courtesy of Iris Hantverk

When encountering an Iris Hantverk brush in the wild, a few things stand out straight away: Its timeless, functional design. The textured, natural materials. And a distinctly Scandinavian aesthetic that would complement both a rustic cabin and a destination spa.

Iris Hantverk Goodee Exclusive Long Handle Dustpan Brush Set. Photography by Alex Blouin and Jodi Heartz

 And yet, one could very well buy and use an Iris Hantverk brush – a dustpan or dish scrubber or porch broom – without ever knowing where it came from, or that it was handmade by visually impaired craftspeople. And that’s sort of the point.

“The product has always been the priority,” says Sarah Edhäll, current co-owner of Iris Hantverk (“iris” refers to the eye, “hantverk” means craft in Swedish).

She argues that social good shouldn’t come at the expense of enduring quality or renewable materials, that they must all co-exist to be truly sustainable.

“In the 19th century, a lot of people wanted to ‘help’ visually impaired people from a place of pity, rather than enable them to earn their own living.”

In 1870s Stockholm, a man named Dr. Axel Beskov founded a workhouse for visually impaired craftspeople, laying the foundations for Iris Hantverk.

As Sweden’s economy shifted from agriculture to industrialization, the country’s burgeoning labor movement rallied around issues like workplace safety and health benefits. In 1870s Stockholm, a man named Dr. Axel Beskov founded a workhouse for visually impaired craftspeople, laying the foundations for Iris Hantverk. While the company changed locations and hands over the years, and the product line expanded beyond brushes into objects like wooden towel racks and bath mats, the core mission remained. Even the 1950s-era brush-binding equipment stayed the same, itself a testament to enduring design.

Then about a decade ago, the Swedish government pulled crucial funding for Iris Hantverk and similar initiatives. The owners decided to sell, but Edhäll – who had been there since she was a student, working at their two Stockholm shops – and her colleague Richard Sparrenhök didn’t want the company to go to the wrong owners. Especially buyers who planned on keeping the branding but not the workers. So the two spent the summer running the numbers, finally taking over in 2012.

“When we decide on a new product, our goal is to have something that lasts forever. Not just for a season or a trend,” says Edhäll

Now, Iris Hantverk is sold in over 800 shops around the world, and boasts 17 employees, including six craftspeople who hail from countries like Iran and Eritrea – the youngest in his 40s, the eldest 65 – working close to Stockholm in Sandsborgsvägen, Enskede. They also continue to partner with a similar workshop in Estonia.

So what has changed since the pair took over? Not as much as one might think. In typical Swedish style, Edhäll doesn’t try to impress with ambitious benchmarks and big numbers, though she notes (only when prompted) that the company is finally profitable, whereas it didn’t break even in the past.

Iris Hantverk Lovisa Bath Brush and Shaving Brush. Photography by Alex Blouin and Jodi Heartz

The brushes remain delightfully deliberate in their function and materials: Mexican tampico plant fiber is used in nail brushes and vegetable brushes, trimmed goat hair is used in face brushes and baby hairbrushes.

“When we decide on a new product, our goal is to have something that lasts forever. Not just for a season or a trend,” says Edhäll. But as they expand their line, they also lose products – simply because some can’t be made anymore.

“Many wood producers in Sweden are one-person operations, run by an old man. When they retire, they have no one to take over their business.”

(A stark reminder of what can happen to a traditional craft, without strategic protection.)


Certainly, social media has helped boost their profile, even if they approach it as a bit of an afterthought. Their aesthetics have made them a cult favorite of chefs, interior designers and eco-minded stylists, who regularly tag the company in posts that look like expensive ad campaigns. When they do collaborate, they choose influencers with similar vibes and values – people like @arstidensbasta and @petitsouriredesign – rather than those who focus on selfies and product hauls.

Despite all their success, Edhäll is adamant that growth be organic. “Even if we wanted to expand quickly, we’d need people to fill those roles,” she points out. As it is, one of their artisans recently retired after 30 years, and they’ve got an open spot to train a new worker – if they can find one. Perhaps it’s a testament to Sweden’s social services or global advancements in disability tech, like screen readers, that there are now so many other options available to visually impaired people. 

When asked if brush binding is hard work, she laughs and says, “I tried it, and it was very, very, very difficult,” though she adds that there is something to be said for doing it all by sense of touch alone. “One of the workers who has some sight actually had a harder time learning, because he was still trying to look at what he was doing – while the others simply felt their way through it.”