Behind the scenes at Heyland & Whittle - talking history with Padraig

Behind the scenes at Heyland & Whittle - talking history with Padraig

Heyland & Whittle is a brand loved and trusted by people not just in Britain, but across the globe too. We're famed for our natural ingredients, beautiful scents and products that are great to look at - and we still love creating them today just as much as we ever did.

When we caught up with operations manager Padraig for a chat recently, he pointed out that a key factor behind our longevity is the fact that we haven't strayed too far from the original ethos: fantastic products made with the TLC that can only come from manual craftsmanship.

In fact, H&W has always been just about as handmade as you can get, dating back to the days when Padraig first came up with the idea of manufacturing bespoke soaps from his cousins.

'Something that looked like cheese'

"My cousins had a health food shop in Chicago and I had been over there in my late twenties," he recalled. I saw something they had made and I didn't know what it was; it looked like cheese."

Fortunately, Padraig didn't eat any before they had the chance to explain it was, in fact, soap - and it was selling really well. Although he bought some and found that it worked well on a skin complaint he was struggling with at the time, Padraig didn't think much more of this cottage industry once he left the States.

Fast forward to 1998 though, and he remembered the soap once more when he found himself between jobs and keen to launch his own business - which led to a call with the Chicago-based relatives.

"I had a chat with them and they gave me the basic idea; not the recipes exactly, but the idea of how I could go about doing it - and it all went from there," Padraig explained.

Just four months later, he had perfected his manufacturing methods, which relied on the cold processing technique you'll see us referring to on our website.

Cold processing - the science part

However, as Padraig explained, this was by no means a new trick. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that cold processing has been used since the days of the Ancient Egyptians - when they discovered it by accident.

"The Egyptians used to burn animals ritualistically," Padraig explained. "Fat would then drip down into the ash of the firewood, which was gathered from hardwood trees."

That's where a certain amount of scientific magic took place - because contained within the ash of the hardwood was potassium hydroxide, which combined with the fatty acids and ran off into the nearby River Nile. When it reached the water and cooled, it created bubbles that the local people noticed could act in a beneficial way when they bathed or washed clothes.

"They thought it was a cleansing ritual from the gods," Padraig said.

Our operations manager Padraig McEnerney tells us how a chance encounter in Chicago and the use of a manufacturing method dating back thousands of years led to the creation of the products you know and love today.

From this lucky coincidence, history was made and eventually, scientists realised that the cleansing properties arose as a result of a chemical reaction between acid and alkaline.

"So when we talk about the cold processing method here at H&W, we're really just referring to soap made at a cold temperature by mixing alkali, water and oil. That's it," elaborated Padraig.

Experimentation and early sales

In the early days, Padraig explained that he was keen to make eight or ten soaps with different characteristics and entirely different ingredients. However, he soon realised that this wasn't necessary as long as the soap had natural properties and a great scent.

"Customers weren't too bothered that one was slightly different to another - they just wanted a good soap.  As long as they had a good natural soap, they didn't care - only that and scent was important."

After that, Padraig settled on a basic recipe and simply varied the oils and fragrances. We still use olive oil, a type of castor oil (which is unique to us and gives really dense, rich bubbles), coconut oil and palm oil. Importantly, the palm oil always comes from certified sustainable forests in Columbia and not the endangered habitats in Malaysia and other parts of Asia.

The colourings are also 100 per cent natural too, which means that even the bright pinks and dark browns you see in our soaps aren't created using chemicals and additives. For example, Padraig pointed out that a cayenne pepper is put to good use making a light brown, while ground walnut turns a white soap into a rich chocolate colour, something he still finds "quite extraordinary".

Meanwhile, 45 different essential oils (including witch hazel and tea tree) can be mixed in to benefit the skin and the alkali is simply rock salt - although it was still hardwood ash right into the earlier part of the 20th century.

"The colours, the soap base and the essential oils haven't changed since 1998 when I first started - it hasn't needed to change," Padraig pointed out.

In fact, the only thing that he did have to do back in the late 1990s was introduce boxes when it became clear that customers liked to mix and match small boxes of soaps to buy as gifts - and that's something you can still do today via our website.

Looking back, Padraig is philosophical about the phenomenal popularity of the handmade items that formed the backbone of H&W, stating that those original soaps "just became a very successful product".

However, it's clear that this success came about because he found a way to give customers what they wanted: natural, organic, great-smelling products with a personal touch. And, as we said earlier, that's an ethos we still adhere to now.

Next month: Find out how H&W progressed but remained true to its roots when Padraig met Paddy and Ursula - and get a sneak peek behind the scenes to discover how we select our fragrances.