UK Handmade Portfolio member, Ceri Aitman of Oakwood Soaperie handmakes luxurious soaps using organically grown botanicals from the National Trust's Gibside Estate. From planting to packaging, here she tells us how they come into being.
I’ve always loved nature and colour and working with natural ingredients. I find inspiration all around me in nature and how plants, flowers and leaves can be used not only for decoration but also for their beneficial effects. I spend a lot of time reading and learning about the properties of essential oils, natural botanicals and how natural ingredients like clays, plant butters and oils can really benefit and condition the skin as well as being incredibly pretty and endlessly versatile.
My studio is within a converted hayloft in the rural, 18th Century National Trust property of Gibside Estate, near Rowlands Gill in North East England. I am lucky enough to have a botanical plot in their historic walled garden, less than a mile from my making space. Each spring the Estate volunteers and I plant up the botanicals I’ll be using later in the year. This year I have lavender, chamomile, cornflowers, poppies (for the seeds) and marigolds as they did so well last year. My studio was festooned with drying blooms right up until late September. I harvest and dry them for use in my soaps, bath salts and confetti cones. I also use calendula and chamomile as infusions in oils as they are tremendously soothing on the skin, imparting their healing properties and gorgeous golden colour to the oils. Everything on the estate is organically grown without the use of chemicals, making it the ideal environment to grow plant material I can use safely in soaps and bath products.
I make all my soaps using the traditional ‘Cold Process’ method. I love this technique as it is challenging yet allows for a lot of creativity, as well as preserving the natural vitamins and minerals present in the high quality plant oils I use. I carefully measure all my ingredients for a batch then combine them to a specific method I’ve devised over the years after lots of trial and error. Once the soap batter reaches ‘trace’, I add natural plant based colorants, coloured clays, essential oils or exfoliants depending on my recipe and then pour it all into my handmade wooden block molds. When pouring out the mix, I use lots of varying techniques to create pattern or swirls within the bar, you never know quite how it’ll look, and every bar will be different, so it’s a little surprise every time a batch is cut into the next day. As my soap is cold process using an alkali solution in its manufacture, it requires a ‘cure’ period of 4–6 weeks from making before it can be wrapped and sold. This allows the liquid portion of my recipe to evaporate and the bar becomes milder and firmer during the cure resulting in a luxuriously lathering, very gentle, firm bar of 100% natural soap.
What makes my products special? I think it’s down to the ingredients I choose and the fact that I make them completely from scratch using high quality ingredients and traditional methods. As well as the organically grown botanicals from my plot, I also use lots of other lovely ingredients like milk powders, ground oats, spices and raw honey from my father’s native dark bees. It has a truly delicious taste (although I don’t recommend tasting my soaps!) and is exceptionally good for the skin, being naturally antiviral and antibiotic, while promoting skin healing too.
As well as packing my products in lots of lovely, luxurious and natural ingredients to really pamper your skins and feed them with goodness, I also try to make them pretty, a little thing of joy someone will see and use every day. I scatter the tops of some of my soaps with flowers, herbs and seeds from my plot and decorate some with coloured swirls using clays or spices, or even the odd dash of cosmetic grade mica if I’m feeling jazzy. I hand wrap them all in breathable waxed paper and then handmade paper with ingredients labels. I try to keep all packaging recyclable or compostable where possible too and am currently working on a new logo, label design and wrapping style which I’m hoping to start using in the next month or so. This will further reduce the amount of packaging and time to wrap each bar.
I’m self-taught. I could have chosen to complete a soap making course, but I found these were quite expensive at the time and there were none near my home town so I decided to research and learn all about the techniques, oil properties and ingredients from many books and internet resources. I’m building quite a library these days. I did, however, complete a diploma in the study of essential oils around 10 years ago. This taught me about their properties, safe handling and versatility in cosmetic and aromatherapeutic use. It took me a long time to devise my recipes and refine my making methods, I think every natural soap maker has their own closely guarded ‘secret formula’ they have devised over the years.
What's next? I’m working on revising my complete product range and developing a new line of soaps with luxurious ingredients such as silk, cream and cosmetic mica colours. I hope these will be available from late summer this year. As well as devising my new packaging and labels for my whole range, I’m also starting to work on a side-line quite unrelated to soap but still with a natural theme. I completed a Fashion and Textiles degree back in my 20’s and have always loved the forms and colours found in nature; they are a daily inspiration to me working in such a rural, green space. My plans are still in an embryonic state at the moment but I’m looking forward to experimenting with eco dying on fabrics and paper later in the summer. I love being busy!
Where to buy Oakwood Soaperie products and find out more about them:
Oakwood Soaperie products are available from local gift shops and Tourist Information shops around the North east. You can find me a local markets and events (see my events page) or buy my products online from my website. I also have shops on Folksy and Etsy handmade marketplaces. A full list of stockists is available on my website. All my products are fully compliant with current EU cosmetic regulations and fully safety assessed by a Chartered Cosmetic Chemist. I also hold full public and liability insurance.
All images by Oakwood Soaperie.
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