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Interview: Suds Up with Clara of Auntie Clara's Handmade Soap

soapmaker success stories starting a soap business
brown bar of soap next to a peony

Ready for another round of sudsing up with a soapmaker?

If you participate in any soapmaking Facebook groups, like Soaper's Retreat, you have probably seen this next soaper around.

Clara's soaps are always a stunning display of beauty and intention, with interesting ingredients like moose & goat milk, eggs, milk stout, and more. I always look forward to what she's going to make next and love following her on Facebook.

Let's get to know Clara Lindberg from Auntie Clara's Handmade Soap:

MS: How were you introduced to handcrafted soapmaking?

I’m part of a generation who was indoctrinated through TV commercials to believe that soap is bad for your skin, clogs pores etc. Growing up in Finland in the seventies and eighties there wasn't much handcrafted soap around. Moving to South Africa in the nineties I saw handcrafted melt & pour soap for the first time, but nothing about it made me want to try and make something similar myself.

In about 2007 my daughter had an accident and got a nasty gash on her chin. The doctor prescribed a vitamin-e oil to help reduce scar tissue. Applying the oil under the chin was difficult because it was runny so I decided to google if there was some way of making it more solid. That’s how I got started making balms and creams and spent lots of long nights researching oils and other ingredients. In the process I often came across soapmaking forums and discussions about the soaping properties of oils etc. but the actual making of soap seemed very complicated with getting temperatures to match, doing intricate lye calculations for each different oil and soap etc. I didn't feel any need to go through all that effort and so I didn't.

Rock Shandy Soap

Then in 2011 I walked into a gift shop at Istanbul airport. A lovely shop it was where they let you taste every kind of sweet they sell๏Š, but in the back corner they also sold soap. Big, thick disks of naked soap in muted natural looking colours with two holes and a rough hemp rope pulled through. They were big, the biggest must have weighed well over 300 g, they smelled vaguely of olive oil combined with essential oils (apart from the one that smelled rather loudly of pine tar), and there was something fascinating about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I didn’t buy any, but the light had come on as it were. A couple of weeks later I was browsing through a bookstore in Helsinki. Just as I was about to walk out I saw a book saying ‘SAIPPUAA’ (‘soap’) in big letters on the cover. I picked it up, opened it and in a series of six or seven simple pictures it showed you how cp soap is made. That was it. I just knew I had to try it. I bought the book and went to meet a friend at a coffee shop. As we were chatting I pulled out the book and told her: “Here’s what I’m going to do next”. And as they say, the rest is history.

MS: What was your favourite resource as a beginner?

That book, ‘Käsin Tehtyä Saippuaa’ by Finnish soapmaker Saara Kuha, was my resource when I started making soap. Knowing what I know about soapmaking today, there are details in the book that I’m inclined to politely disagree with, but all in all it’s a very good book for beginners. It’s a good all-round guide with proper discussions about methods and ingredients and one of its best features is that it takes the mystery out of lye calculations. It walks you through the maths involved in calculating lye and lye discounts for your formula in a very clear and palatable way. Today I really appreciate that I wasn't simply referred to Soap Calc or some other online calculator back then. I've never tried any of the recipes in the book so I can’t vouch for them but the pictures are good: good, simple soap (some with ash and some with partial gel) looking very attractive.

MS: Tell us about your first batch of soap!

By the time I made my first soap I had never seen a single soaping video so I was completely un-intimidated by anybody else’s fabulous soap art ๏Š. I had however read Saara Kuha’s book back and forth to the extent that I almost knew it by heart and I had done extensive research on the properties of various oils etc. I had also formulated my own recipe and calculated the lye using pen and paper, a SAP chart and a calculator. It was a very simple three oil recipe but it was all mine.

 Absolutely Fabulous

Everything went according to book, the batter was poured into a juice container and wrapped with towels. Couldn't stay away from it though, had to stick my fingers under the covers to feel that amazing heat on the side of the container every so often. The next morning I had to restrain myself because the book said you had to wait 24h to unmould. The clock ticked very slowly that day but finally it was time and out she came, absolutely beautiful and perfect - no colourant and just a soft scent of local lavender eo. I loved that first soap almost as much as I loved my newborn children.

MS: How long have you been making soap?

I made my first soap in 2011. It sounds recent but it feels like I've been doing this a long time, probably because I’ve made masses of batches of different soaps since then.

MS: What was the biggest nightmare batch you ever made?

Like many others I have also scooped large quantities of soap batter off the floor, but the one batch that I really struggled with was the one I made when I had decided to teach myself to like patchouli. “Just a little in a blend” was my thinking and so I made a blend with lavender, sweet orange and 20% patchouli. I soaped it in the evening – and woke up the next morning to a house that stank of patchouli and with a migraine from hell that lasted four days. Obviously I can’t be certain that the patchouli triggered the migraine but it sure put a bit of a damper on the experience. After four days I could finally bring myself to cut the soap – with the longest arms ever and when it had cured in the garage I quickly wrapped it and gave it all to a friend who likes patchouli. Later, I've come to realize that I’m very sensitive to the smell of patchouli and can pick it up at tiny concentrations. I use patchouli today, but only very sparingly in blends.

MS: What was the most complex batch of soap you have ever made?

Black Honey Soap uncut

Complexity can be many different things; complexity of design, complexity of method and execution, complexity of ingredients etc. In terms of design and execution the leopard spotted soap that I made for Amy Warden’s soap challenge a year ago was quite complex. The soap got too thick for my equipment and it was a real b*tch of a batch but that’s also why the end result turned out as well as it did. The Frog Prince with a cp frog embedded on a bed of inverted stamp lily pads is a fairly complex design. But I also think the process of making my Traditional Pine Tar Soap is pretty complex. It’s made with three different kinds of animal fat each of which I render myself.

MS: Have there been any other soapmakers in your family’s history?

Undoubtedly, although I don’t have any documentation of it. At the manor house on the estate that my great great grandmother inherited from her mother there is still a huge built-in cauldron next to the massive baking oven. That cauldron must have been used for rendering fat and making soap.

MS: Have you ever made your own lye, grown your own ingredients, etc?

I haven’t made lye – yet. I use plants from my garden powdered and for infusions so that probably counts as growing ingredients. Also, I rear silk worms and use the silk from their vacated cocoons in my soap.

MS: If you were stranded on an island, would you find a way to make soap? How?

But of course. My island would be in the Finnish archipelago where soapwort grows indigenously. I’d fill a good size rock cavity or hollow with water (if I’m lucky there’s rainwater there already). Then I’d gather plenty of stems and roots of soapwort and cut them up as fine as I can with the little Swiss army knife that I always carry along. The chopped up botanicals go in the water. Then I’d make a big fire (plenty of wood on my forested island) next to my rock cavity and heat suitable size stones in the fire. When hot, the stones go in the water with the chopped botanicals and keep the water simmering until my water is nice and soapy. And voila – mild, liquid soap! Haven’t tried this but I like the idea.

Bombay Blue Soap

MS: Make an educated guess: how many pounds of soap have you made in your lifetime?

I make small batches and so far I've been selling modest amounts of soap. If I guess at 200 kg I’m probably not far off..

MS: What is your soap philosophy?

Haven’t really penned a philosophy but I do keep a set of guidelines for myself that may translate into philosophy. I strive towards making well-made soap, ie making the best soap, most well-suited for an intended purpose from the ingredients available and feasible to me. This includes all aspects from design and formulation to method and execution. Another guideline is safety first. I’m in love with the learning aspect of soapmaking, I keep an open mind and I experiment a lot – but I like to keep it within the limits of what’s safe. Thirdly, I live and work in South Africa. Over here access to certain soaping supplies is limited, but on the other hand we have access to a variety of high quality local ingredients right at our doorstep. I try to use locally sourced ingredients and materials as far as possible for my locally handmade product.

MS: Are you a by the book soaper or do you wing it?

Both. I try to go by the book in terms of safety procedures, exact measurements etc, but I wing it in terms of formulations, designs and things like that. As far as I’m concerned recipes in cook books are there for inspiration more than to be followed to the dot. To date I've also never used somebody else’s ready soap recipe without changes. But the ‘winging it’ is obviously based on a foundation of ever-growing knowledge and experience.

Moose & Goatmilk Soap with Peony

MS: Do you make soap for a specific niche?

Not exclusively, but I work with fiber and my soaps with hydrolyzed wool, mohair and alpaca fiber are sought after by other fiber enthusiasts – and other customers like them too.

MS: Do you have any soapy friends locally?

Yes, I have local soapy friends, but no, we haven’t soaped together yet, although that could be a lot of fun. The South African Soapers group on FB is still young but I hope we’ll get as far as to organizing our own African Soap Convention at some point.

MS: If you could make soap alongside any soapmaker in the world, who would it be?

Ah, the dream..! I’d love to soap alongside the master soapers in Aleppo (I’d kill to be able to walk on all that soap with those specially designed soap shoes) and with those who still make genuine Marseilles soap the traditional way. But if I’d have to choose one person it’d be Kevin Dunn. I have lots of whys and hows for him and I regularly come up with fabulous potential research topics for his students so I think it might be an interesting session – at least for me.

MS: Besides a stick blender, what is one soapmaking tool you couldn't live without?

Well, in fact I can make good soap without a stick blender. But I can’t make consistently good soap without a good scale.

MS: Is there anything that became a trend in artisan soapmaking that you just don’t get. Or that you tried and couldn’t get the hang of?

Never say never, but so far the charm of piped soapy cakes and cupcakes kind of escapes me. I appreciate the fun challenge involved and I marvel at the artistry, but it’s not something I’d choose to take a shower with.

The Frog Prince Soap uncut

MS: What is unique about your company and products?

What sets a Michelin star restaurant apart from other very good restaurants will always be the level of creativity. Pushing the limits and coming up with something new that works and is appealing and interesting – sometimes against the odds. I strive towards this in my little one person soaping setup and I pour passion into what I do, be it making soap, soap stamps, molds, thinking up packaging themes, naming the soaps and telling their stories or taking pictures of them. I think this passion shows – both in pictures and in the way my soaps come across to the user.

MS: What is one of the biggest mistakes you've made in business and how did you overcome it?

Had I, from the beginning, worked as hard on a proper marketing strategy as I've been working on developing my product, my turnover could be many times what it is today. On the other hand, I’m taking a long term perspective and I choose to consider my extra soapmaking experience as a valuable asset. As I’m writing this I’m finally in the process of building my first website which I’m hoping will be a helpful tool for future marketing efforts. I’m doing it myself and the amount of work involved is mind boggling, but the learning curve is equally impressive.

MS: Do you use social media to market your business? Do you have any tips?

As I said my marketing efforts have been rather diminutive to date but it’s clear that social media is playing an increasing part in how we make ourselves known to the world and reach our existing and potential customers. It’s also a fact that social media is highly visual and more than ever a picture says more – and travels faster – than a thousand words. We consume and demand images and with improved technology our expectations with regards to images are constantly on the rise. It’s inevitable that we’ll be judged (consciously or not) based on the images we present so we might as well put our best effort into those pictures.

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