I was lucky enough to have a good chat with Katie Lancaster, a member of the WhimsyandCosy Craft Club, see HERE, about CRAFT CLUB
Katie and I decided to talk about her long time history in Soap Making. It was as fascinating as I had hoped and knew it would be.
SOAP MAKING, it really interested me. I see various handcrafted soaps on my shopping trips at times and when Katie told me how she had been Soap Making for a long time – I thought that she would be SO INTERESTING to you here at the blog, as well as at the Craft Club.
Haven’t we all? at some point or another, wondered about WHAT IT TAKES to make something as versatile but useful as a SOAP, Especially now when CRAFTS are so big.
1 Katie, tell us … How did your interest in soap making start?
I started thinking about soap after my admin assistant gave me handcrafted soap for Bosses Day…in 1995. It was a terrific gift and it simply never occurred to me that people could make soap. At that time, I was disillusioned by work in the corporate arena and looking for something radically different to take my mind off work, some sort of new hobby, and soap making is where I landed.
2 How did you go from turning that idea into a reality?
At that time, the internet was still a baby. There wasn’t all the information available like there is now. I went to a local Barnes and Noble and found the classic book, “Soap: Making It, Enjoying It” by Ann Bramson. I read that book thoroughly several times! I started gathering supplies at garage sales – you don’t want to use your regular kitchen stuff to make soap. Once it’s used for soap, it’s only good for soap.
3 Did you start it as a hobby, and was there a lot of trial and error?
Yes, it was just an intriguing idea at the time. I had no idea that it would become a business! I fiddled with a bunch of different oils and formulas in the beginning. Actually, I still very much enjoy the research and development part of my soap making adventure.
4 What was the hardest thing making soap at the beginning?
Easy question! I was terrified of lye. (And it should be noted that while it takes lye to make a true soap, there is no lye in the finished product. The lye reacts with the oils, a chemical reaction known as saponification, which creates a whole new product – soap!)
5 Is it hard to make the chosen scent as strong as you hope?
Nope. I tend to actually fragrance on the lighter end. All my soaps “sniff good” and a person can enjoy the fragrance while using them, but you won’t be left with a lingering scent on your skin. I design them that way deliberately so a person could wear perfume without that fragrance battling with soap fragrance.
6 What is the most fun part of soap making?
Two things: First, I am still thrilled at the process of taking lye/water and oils and creating soap. It’s fun to see how that changes. Second, I love the creative aspect – dreaming up new fragrances, new colors, new names.
7 Did you end up making everyone you know soaps for birthdays etc? and get lots of requests?
Yes. Because for me, it’s a rather addicting process, I just kept making soap to try out different oils, fragrances, etc. One day, I brought them all to my office….and sold over $800 worth of soap. I prefer to think they bought my soap because it was good stuff instead of because I was their boss.
8 Was there a soap you just couldn’t figure out?
Not really. The process for making liquid or true glycerine soaps (not melt and pour) could be a challenge for me. I’ve read up on those for years, but haven’t gotten around to actually trying it.
9 Can you explain the process in some steps for us?
First and foremost, a person must have safety goggles. A little splash of lye could literally ruin your eyes. Never take that chance! Once one has decided on a formula and run it through a saponification calculator (every oil is different in how much lye it takes to create soap), the process is always pretty much like this: Mix lye into water, or other liquid. Weigh out oils and melt. Once they have cooled to a warmish temperature, slowly add the lye to the oils. This is where is looks so cool! Keep mixing until thoroughly combined. I mix to “trace”, which is when a bit of soap dribbled across the top of the mixture stays on top instead of instantly sinking. One doesn’t have to mix to trace, but I tend to mix to trace. Add color and fragrance. Pour into a mold and wait until it is set before unmolding. I usually let mine sit overnight. Cut into bars, let cure for a number of weeks, and enjoy!
10 How small an operation were you at the beginning and was it larger after lots of years?
First, it was just myself. Then our two daughters were coaxed into helping (read minions!). At that time, there weren’t many soap makers. I had both wholesale and retail sales and could have grown the company much larger. However, I had quit my corporate job to spend more time with our girls and going full-time into work wasn’t what I had envisioned. So, for years, I held the company back.
11 Do you think there is as much call for soaps now liquid soaps are popular? What do you think is the upside to them?
Yes, very much so. If people are looking for a natural product, they will turn to handcrafted soap. We live in an area where a LOT of people backpack and camp (near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, BWCA, in northern Minnesota). A person cannot use a traditional liquid soap (a petroleum based product) in the BWCA. So people bring true soap, which is completely biodegradable and safe for the environment – as well as their skin!
I think people like the liquid soaps for their fragrances. I will confess to even buying a B & B body wash once or twice because I liked the fragrance. Fragrance sells, regardless of whether it’s a liquid or bar soap.
Handcrafted soap lasts MUCH longer than liquid soap and it’s generally more cost effective. In addition, when people buy from their regional soap makers, they are supporting small businesses.
12 You moved now into running a book/art store, which sounds fascinating, why did you decided to go that way?
The original owner of the shop, set up a gift shop and craft mall. She rented space to various artists and crafters. I was one of the original crafters and have always sold my soap at the shop. When the shop became available to purchase in 2007, we bought it! Over time, we have sold more books than traditional gift shop merchandise. It rather naturally converted to a bookstore/gallery. My husband and I have ALWAYS wanted to have our own bookstore….and here we are!
13 How does the running of books and art compare to the running of a soap business?
Two very different types of business, but both have the same bottom line: make money (this is how we eat/live, we don’t have “day jobs”). I tend to do most of the ordering of books, all the soap making, most of the merchandising, while hubster tends shop, talks books to people. He’s a very friendly guy! I’m better behind the scenes. We’re a good balance for each other.
14 What are the best things about each types business?
We have a lot of tourist traffic – millions of people visit our region every year, people from all over the world! It’s such a privilege to get to meet all these people! I enjoy hearing people tell me how much they love my soap. And what I love most of all is putting a good book in someone’s hands. It’s like passing on a precious treasure.
15 Is it as much fun running a bookstore as it always seems to a reader? What are the ups and downs of it?
I would say yes, it is a total blast. Mostly! It can be tricky, curating books for the store. There are thousands of books published every year – how to decide which ones to carry? The one major downside is we are not amazon (nor do we wish to be!), but we simply can’t compete with their pricing. There are people that will come to our shop and browse, take a picture of a book with their phone and announce they are going to order it off amazon. That kind of makes me want to throw books at them! I’d like it is people realized that paying an extra dollar or three helps keep money local, invests in their communities.
16 If we were able to get to your store where is it located?
Our shop is called Sweet Peas/Back Forty Books and Gallery, and is located in Two Harbors, Minnesota. We’d love for people to stop by!
Thank you SO MUCH Katie, for that really interesting view into your life, really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us here at WhimsyandCosy.
Thanks everyone for reading , have a GREAT DAY in all your creative adventures. Let me know what YOU like or would like to do in Craft?