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At this time of year I make sure to have a good stock of candles in for the long, dark evenings. Since time immemorial candles have been used to light up the dark, however these days they are just as likely to be used for decoration and scent. Which is where Jo and James of Lakeland Lights Company come in, creating stunningly scented, natural soy candles inspired by the Lake District - find the interview with them after a short history of candle making.
As with much of Western civilisation, candle making emerged during the Roman era. The very earliest candles were made from tallow wax, a form of rendered beef and mutton fat, poured around an unwoven piece of twine for the wick. There have also been early forms of candles found in the tombs of Chinese emperors, including one made with whale fat, with others made from beeswax. using rolled rice paper for the wick. You could say the first 'scented' candle was produced in India, where they combined yak butter with the boiled fruit of the cinnamon tree to create the wax. Less pleasantly scented candles could be found within the Indigenous tribes of Alaska and Canada, where they dried a eulachon, or 'candlefish' on a wooden stick. The high quantity of oil within the fish and their compact size meant they made excellent candles, although perhaps not the best smelling!
The next change in candle making happened during the 18th Century when the whaling industry began producing spermaceti. This wax was obtained by crystallising sperm whale oil, and burned cleanly and brightly with very little odour. It was also harder than the other wax types, so didn't melt or bend in hot weather. It became incredibly popular and the first mass market form of candle wax.
Most of the processes we recognise in modern candle making were developed during the 19th Century. In the 1820s a French chemist called Michel Eugene Chevreul began extracting stearic acid from animal fatty acids, leading to the development of stearin wax. This was, again, durable with a clean burn and became incredibly popular. Mass production was aided by the invention of Joseph Morgan, who developed a machine to allow continuous production of moulded candles, and could produce up to 1500 candles an hour. This made good quality candles easily affordable to the masses. Braided, rather than twisted wicks began being used during this period, which also produced more efficient, self trimming candles. Odorlous, white paraffin wax was discovered in the 1850s and was even more economical to produce.
After the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candlemaking began to decline as demand fell. Kerosene lamps also became common and the need for candles as a source of light dropped sharply. Candle usage remained relatively steady until the mid 1980s, when scented, shaped and coloured candles started to become popular. Candles began to be seen as a decorative item and mood setter. Since then even more new wax formulations have been developed, including soy, palm and flax-seed oil, all cleaner burning than their predecessors. Candles have once again become incredibly popular, used for celebration, to relax, to scent the home and to provide that wonderful glow we all love.
Which brings us nicely to our interview with Jo and James of Lakeland Lights Company. We both arrived on Instagram around the same time in 2019 and I've been following them ever since. I can vouch that their candles smell absolutely stunning and always burn cleanly, something I know to be challenging from my own adventures in candle making. We were lucky enough to visit them in their studio before Christmas and it was an absolute pleasure to finally meet them in person. The studio is a calm oasis of fragrance oils and soy wax, located in a beautiful Victorian, red sandstone building just off Cleator Moor's high street.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started candle making?
We are James and Jo Long and we founded Lakeland Lights Company in 2019. Prior to that we spent over ten years living and working overseas in Hong Kong and Iceland in completely non-candle-related roles. The spark was sown to start a candle business when we made a planning trip to Cumbria at the end of 2018 whilst we were organising our move back to the UK. We wanted to buy a souvenir from the Lake District for James’ mum to say thank you for looking after our dogs back in Iceland. Basically, Mrs Long loves a candle so it seemed an obvious thing to seek out. The only trouble was that we couldn’t find anything that was of good quality, reasonable price, made in Cumbria and actually related to Cumbria. Needless to say, cogs started to turn and we had a spark of an idea to get to work on when we moved back in 2019.
What does a typical day in your workshop look like?
On making days, we switch the wax melters remotely at 6am. This means the wax is about ready to pour by the time we get to the workshop. Upon arrival, James using gets to work prepping jars which includes washing and wicking the jars, whilst Jo works on pulling together and packaging wholesale, internet and local delivery orders. We’re usually ready to pour by late morning, when we work on weighing out wax, mixing scent and pouring candles or melts. A quick break for lunch and then more pouring before we start on any remedial work, and the cleaning, lidding, labelling and boxing up of the previous day’s candle pours. Towards the end of the afternoon, we make a mad dash to make the last collection at the post office and then we’re off on our local delivery runs to for doorstep drop offs.
What are your go to essentials for your work?
Coffee, lots of water (chandling can be very dehydrating), a good apron, an interesting podcast and, of course, Custer the dog popping his head round every now and then from his sleeping/looking-out-the-window spots.
Which are our favourite scents?
It genuinely changes depending on what we’ve poured recently and also our moods. James prefers citrus-based scents and Jo likes smokier smells.
What's your opinion on waxes? Do you have a preference?
Yes, we use 100% soy wax exclusively now after extensively testing a variety of soy blends and other waxes. For us, it produces the most consistent burn for the customer. It’s not the easiest to work with, as unlike paraffin wax it has so many idiosyncrasies, but we like it for its clean burn, low toxicity and the fact it’s sustainable and renewable.
Where of you draw inspiration from for your scents?
In a word, Cumbria. Our candles are named after our favourite places throughout the county, so for us each place evokes a special memory or story that we try to connect with a scent. For example, we regularly walk the dog on St Bees beach, so for our St Bees candle we went for an ocean fresh scent with a bit of zing in it to remind you of being a little windswept.
Are there any craftspeople you particularly admire?
We really admire Upland Clay and Sam Martin to name a couple, but there’s a legion of talented makers and crafters in Cumbria.
What the challenges in candle making?
People don’t realise that candle making is a scientific process, so from a manufacturing perspective every single fragrance has a different optimum temperature for mixing and pouring. The only way to find out what works best for a particular scent is to conduct rigorous testing using lots of different temperature and wick variables. This all takes a lot of time so that we can get the best performing candles possible.
Do you have any advice for someone who would like to start candle making?
If it’s for a hobby, get a candle-making kit or go on a workshop. If you’re thinking about doing it for a business then lots of research, lots of testing and make sure you get your head around the rules and regulations so that you’re compliant.
How do you like to relax when you're not in the workshop?
During lockdown, there hasn’t been a whole lot to do! We both enjoy being out and about in nature with the dog when we can, thinking up new scent combinations for places we visit – the work really never stops!
Find out more about Lakeland Lights and purchase one of their stunning candles or wax melts here.
If you want to try candle making there's plenty of kits available, try Etsy, Hobbycraft or this one from eBay.
Find Upland Clay Lake District pottery here.
Find Sam Martin's wonderful artwork here.