In this month's Meet The Makers, we chat to Lesley Bramwell, founder of Essence + Alchemy about her beautiful collection of small batch scented candles.
It seems fitting that the story of Essence + Alchemy began when Lesley Bramwell moved to the fragrantly-named Rose Cottage in 2012, and began making candles as a ‘happy distraction’ from the reality of renovating the long-neglected cottage. ‘The house dates from the 1860s and was very run down.' Lesley says, 'initially I think I turned to candle making as a way of escaping the chaos of building work, but I found that once I started, I just couldn’t stop!’
Making candles in the middle of a building site was not easy. ‘I could have chosen a more straightforward pastime, definitely,’ Lesley laughs, ‘we didn’t have any heating, and a very basic kitchen when I first started – no worktops and an ancient gas cooker. I used to melt the wax on the stove in a make-shift bain-marie, blend my essential oils on the kitchen table and then pour the candles and store them in the oven. It was tricky but I loved it and quickly became a bit obsessed with creating the best eco-friendly and natural candle that I could.’
The move from 'happy distraction' to fully-fledged business was a gradual one; it took two years from the first candle to the launch of Essence + Alchemy in 2014 (with the online shop following a year later in 2015).
The first couple of years were mainly about experimentation, giving candles to friends, getting their feedback and improving the blends.' Coming up with a brand name also took a little while; 'I wanted to do something which reflected both my love for essential oils and my scientific background. It took a while before I hit upon Essence + Alchemy - I like to think of it as a chemical equation, with a little bit of magic thrown in.'
A major turning point came when Lesley started an Instagram account for Essence + Alchemy. ‘That had a big part to play in the birth of the business. I opened the account in 2014, and my work started getting noticed, which slowly translated into people asking if they could buy my candles. I started selling on a very informal basis and it went from there.’
Essence + Alchemy has gone from strength to strength, with Lesley stepping away from her job as an occupational hygienist and environmental consultant to work full time on the business. Consultancy and candle-making might be worlds apart, but her experience in environmental work has heavily influenced the ethos of Essence + Alchemy. ‘Everything that goes into the candles is natural,’ she explains. ‘I don’t use synthetic fragrances or additives. In my previous career I spent my time visiting industrial workplaces to analyse chemical levels - so I’m only too familiar with the effects caused by chemical exposure. I was determined that everything I made was pure and natural. Using chemical or synthetic alternatives was never an option.’
Lesley inherited an interest in essential oils, and their properties, from her mother. ‘My mam always had essential oils around, she bought me my first set of oils and used to send me provisions while I was at University – basil oil for concentration was always a useful one! Long before I started making candles, I’d be making my own blends for burning and for using in the bath.’
Using her extensive collection of aromatherapy reference books as a guide Lesley is largely self-taught, and in the early days, experimentation and testing formed an important part of the process. ‘I started with British beeswax as it’s locally sourced and sustainable, but I found it very difficult to work with and messy to clean up. It also didn’t burn that well. When it came to the actual candle-making process, I used the internet for a basic guide on how to go about it but because my ingredients were slightly different to the norm - rapeseed wax and essential oils, it just took a lot of experimenting. The only way you can learn about making candles is to buy the materials and have a go. All waxes and scents work differently so it’s very much about trial and error.’
Essence + Alchemy production has since moved from the kitchen table to a lab in central Sheffield, where a typical day starts with the wax melter heating up and the kettle on (‘I never seem to get the time to drink the tea...’)
‘I usually have a batch of different products on the go at the same time. The wax for one blend will be solidifying while I start another batch. While the wax is melting I can get on with other things like blending scents or catching up on emails and admin. I also prep my containers, clean each one and add the wick. When the wax is melted I pour it in my measuring jug; I have a different one for each scent. I then let it cool to temperature before adding the scent and pour into the container. I let the wax solidify and let the candles cure for 24 hours. I trim the wick and clean up the outside of the container.’
Lesley uses wood wicks in her candles, as opposed to a standard wick. ‘I love wood wicks,’ she says, ‘they give a very clean and even burn and I love the crackling noise they make, I find that the sound adds to the therapeutic nature of the candles.’
The Essence + Alchemy range is split into four themed collections; herbal, floral, relaxing and and winter. Lesley also creates limited edition candles, most recently a candle inspired by a visit to Croatia – how easy is it to translate a sense of place into scent?
‘It takes practise! I take my time investigating the flora and fauna that grows in an area, so I can identify what it is exactly which is creating the ‘signature’ scent. For example, I’ve just launched a Winter Bergamot candle, which was inspired by a trip to Italy, as bergamot blossoms in the south of the country throughout the winter. It’s one of the best parts of the job – I love the challenge of trying to capture that essence in a candle – it’s what inspires me.’
Other makers are also a source of inspiration for Lesley; ‘I’ve met so many wonderful people through starting Essence+ Alchemy; women who have developed crafts and businesses from totally different backgrounds, like Helena Marie Dolby, and ceramicists like Pip Wilcox and Kira Ni.’
Scent is incredibly evocative – does Lesley have a fragrance which is particularly special to her? ‘Rose. It reminds me so much of grandmother who always wore a rose perfume. I wanted to capture that memory in a candle – and I think I’ve managed it with my roses candle – it’s aromatic but not overpowering. It’s one of my most popular candles, and it’s lovely to think my grandmother is the inspiration.’
On a more practical note, how easy is to sell a sensory product, like candles online? ‘I would say that the more face to face sales you have at fairs and markets the easier it becomes, it’s difficult to buy a scented product online unless you’re familiar with it first. So, I also sell tea lights, so people can try out a scent before committing to a full size candle. Happily, I’m getting lots of repeat customers now, which I am so grateful for.’
Looking back on the last two years, what lessons has Lesley taken from the process of setting up as an independent maker? ‘Lots of things, but one unexpected lesson - don’t underestimate the importance of Instagram! Running a business on your own can be lonely and it’s important to make connections and friendships. Instagram, is not just about business growth, it’s a great place to find that community. I’ve made great friends like Kira Ni through Instagram. We ‘met’ when I used one of her jugs in a product shot, and have since become friends and worked together.’
‘Meeting like-minded people has been one of the best things about setting up the business,’ Lesley continues, ‘I was at a market on Sunday and one lady thanked me and told me that my candles bring so much pleasure to her life. Comments like that make me so happy. I love candle-making and I’m so grateful to my lovely customers and stockists for their support. I feel very lucky!