I am delighted to share with you this talented soap maker. In this interview Sharon Boyd Chapman of Willow Bella shares wonderful insights and a beautiful spirit with you this week. Sharon is a friend, but she didn’t get a spot just because she’s a friend… Sharon is highlighted because of her generous nature, her deft use of color and her skill with the alchemy of bath products.
When did you know soap making was for you? Describe the moment you knew soap making was for you.
For as long as I can remember I have loved the art of creating. When I was a little child I would spend hours, day after day, mining red clay from our backyard to make pottery out of it, or mud pies, or whatever my little mind could dream up. I remember sometimes painting it on the skin of my arms and legs and letting the sun dry it. I would sit quietly watching as the texture would turn and start to crackle. I was fascinated with how it would make my skin feel. And I loved the experiences that clay gave me. It planted a seed.
When I became a teenager I found one of my Mom’s old cosmetology books in a stack of books in a box in the back of a closet. Not the kind they have now, but home remedies. It would seem that back in the late 50’s and 60’s that they made a lot of their own masks and treatments. At least this was the time period this particular book came from. I was once again that little girl playing with textures and ingredients. I’d pour over that book and run to the kitchen and make “recipes” that I’d find within the pages. I can look back now and see I was maybe a bit of a handful. My Mom let me have the book and experiment so long as I cleaned up my mess.
It remained one of my favorite books for years until it was destroyed in a water leak. I still remember a lot of the information in that book. Like buttermilk will help with age spots and lemon juice is great to lighten the skin. Most of those recipes found a home in my thought process, somewhere in the back of my mind.
As I grew up I found different jobs (not all of them, but several) that would allow me to express myself by things I could make. One of these jobs was making and selling dreamcatchers, pottery, and ceramics. We sold to several small businesses around the D.C. area. One of these was in a small eastern
town in West Virginia. Next door to the shop that wanted to buy my things was a soap shop. I remember to this day wandering in. The breathtaking beauty of those soaps and the smells that danced around captured me that day. It was the first soap shop I’d ever experienced. I think I was hooked then, but it wasn’t the time. But that seed was growing, I just didn’t know it.
What are your favorite part of making soap, bath and body products and why?
That my inner child and the artist get to come out and play, along with the mad scientist. I love creating. I love the science and the research that it takes to come up with recipes. I love putting the puzzle pieces together. And then making those come to life with color and scent. And I love creating usable art.
What prompted you to make soap and bath products?
I used to bake and make candies and I ended up with too much sugar one year around Christmas time. I was at a family gathering and had asked the question “What am I going to do with 50 pounds of sugar?” I had a cousin say “Maybe you should make sugar scrubs?” So the research started and that little seed grew into the beginning of something bigger.
From there it was glycerin soap/melt and pour, lotions, much simpler things to make than cold process soap. I started making more and more complicated things. And designing products that weren’t already in the market; fusion type products.
My body mousse came from my need for something very moisturizing that would have the effect of body butter without making me feel as if I were suffocating. It is a cross between whipped body butter and a body lotion.
Sort of like a cream, but not heavy.
I found that I really enjoyed mixing different elements to create something new, or, at least, different.
How did you create your signature style?
At the request of someone special to me I tried my hand at bath bombs and it was a miserable failure, over and over again. I just couldn’t get them right. So I decided if I couldn’t make bath bombs I’d make something similar to bath bombs. Bath bombs that didn’t have to look like bath bombs.
I searched around the internet and found a recipe for bath truffles. It was from a website called Meg’s Made It. And a recipe for bath melts by Spicy Pinecone. So I started with these two recipes, started being the key word. I spent a very long time adding this ingredient and that ingredient, taking some out, replacing with others, and adding even more ingredients until I got the recipe just where I wanted it to be. It took about 3 years to get the recipe right and another year to get the colors to do
and look the way I wanted them to.
I know that I am actually still evolving; in my soap making, my truffles, everything I make – I strive for that next step. I honestly hope that I never stop evolving. Being stagnant in anything is one of my greatest fears.
What makes you happy to get out of bed regarding soap making and bath products?
I get very excited when I am working on a new concept. Or when a mystery is solved in my mind and I want to test the theory. Or when things are going very smoothly. And when the colors come out just right…
Okay, honestly it is easier to tell you when I’m not happy to come into work. When things go bad, and I mean really, really bad – oils spill and colors are ick, nothing works and batches are unusable, over and over again. Those are the only days I just pack up and do something else or hide out in the office and do something else for a while. Because I have found it will not work when the gremlins take over and it is just best to take a break and let them be. They do go away if you ignore them.
When did you know you would open a physical store?
It actually came down to having to find space to work outside my home. I had outgrown the house and my husband mentioned that maybe it was time to find some more space. After looking around for a warehouse type place to move to I found a perfect spot that actually allowed me to use some of the front of the space for a small shop as well as a lovely room to teach classes and host parties one day. It’s very close to my home and the school so it works perfectly for us as a family.
One of the most difficult parts of having a shop vs. working from home is that, even though we are a brick and mortar shop, we aren’t always able to keep regular hours since the kids do get sick and things like field trips and dance recitals come up. However, we have learned a way to make this work to the benefit of our customers. We offer shopping by appointment when it is convenient for them. So everyone wins. Being creative and flexible has allowed me to keep the doors open when otherwise I would have had to go back to working at home.
What were your hopes for creating your soap business?
That I can make a living doing something that brings me such joy. It sounds like such a simple answer, but it isn’t.
I had been searching for a while for something I could do to create and make some extra money that would allow me to spend time with my daughter and granddaughter. And maybe something they could help me with one day. They both have health problems, not major, but enough that it oftentimes can complicate life. So I needed something with flexibility and something I would love to do without getting bored. A much bigger feat than it would seem.
I had tried woodworking, baking, painting; a lot of things. I jumped from one thing to the next, leaving chaos in my wake. Lots of half-finished projects still laugh at me in the garage and the attic.
But when I started making bath products it was like coming home from a long journey. There is a peace when I am at my lab, a part of me that only comes alive here. All the pieces of my life kind of fell into place and finally made sense, and I am so thankful. I could not imagine doing anything else.
Do you have concerns and/or hopes for the soap industry?
One of my biggest concerns is that, as a cottage industry, we can be very vulnerable to big businesses and lobbyists that feel threatened by us and wish to close us down as a whole. And, on the flip side of that, those in our industry that don’t follow proper procedure and practices, ingredient usage, etc. that could give those that wishes to shut our industry down the leverage they need.
One of my hopes for the industry is that we find a way to come together and enjoy each other’s work. And that we find our own voice and style. We all learn from others but it is our individuality that will set us apart. I strive every day to make my work stand apart from the crowd.
I see the movement of handcrafted soap and body products making huge leaps forward and it excites me to be part of the movement. I think there is a real resurgence in a lot of what I call usable art; soaping, quilting, even canning is becoming a work of art in several places I’ve been to recently. I know there is probably a better term for this art form, but this one is stuck in my head.
What do you want people to know about your work?
That making quality product means more to me than making a profit. I want my work to speak for itself. I spend countless hours on research and development to make the very best product I can. I pride myself on using the best ingredients I can find. I take time to make it as perfect as I can. All of our untried products are tested at home with my family and myself before they go out to our to our testers. We have extremely sensitive skin so if it passes that test it goes on. If not, it goes back into development.
My youngest daughter, Willow, said it best “I want to make stuff that makes people feel like a mermaid!” If I can make someone feel as special as that sentence meant to her when she said it then I know I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Because I think everyone needs to feel that special, even if it is just for an hour. And I hope what I create helps to do that. Lofty goals I know, but very important to me to strive for this.
What are your favorite parts to making soap?
There is a magic, an art, as well as a science to making all soap, bath and body products, at least for me. Sometimes I start with research. I may want to know about an ingredient and how I can utilize it, like French clay. But, most of the time it is something I see, or hear, or feel that I want to capture on my “canvas”. And they all come together like a symphony or a well written book. All the pieces fall into place and there is that zen moment when it all just works.
This is my favorite part. When time seems to be suspended and the magic takes over and you are just in the moment.
I also must admit to the fact that I am a scent and colorant addict. There are over 250 scents and probably almost that much in colors in the studio work space. And that is before any blending.
What makes you laugh about making soap?
When that same recipe you used the time before and found that wonderful zen moment decides to behave badly. It goes all wonky. It can be unpredictable and chaotic. It keeps me on my toes and dancing the dance. I am never bored.
What do you want readers to know about you or your soap making business?
I wanted to say thank you to some of my biggest influences in learning what I love to do, especially in the formulating and cold process department. This isn’t a complete list by any means, but some I know I owe a ton of gratitude to.
- Bee at Sorcery Soap
- Handmade in Florida
- Soap Queen
- Missouri River Soaps
- Royalty Soaps
- Spicy Pinecone
- Le Fille De La Mer
- Swift Craft Monkey
All the ways to Connect with Sharon at Willow Bella