Today, I’m pleased to feature John Christian of Botanica Bath. John makes natural and organic soaps and other body products. I really love his creations and I’m so glad he is sharing his passion with us today!
Q – 1) Can you tell us a little about your journey in becoming an artisan soap maker? When did you create your first soap that you really liked?
A: Becoming a soap maker is kind of a funny thing. I don’t think too many people do it intentionally… it just seems to happen. I guess you say it’s a sort of calling that becomes an obsession. For me I started making soap and other products as an off season activity during the time that I had an organic vegetable farm in Connecticut. Winters can be incredibly long when you are planning your first crop for the spring which is months away. So, I started thinking about farm craft ideas. I incorporated this idea into some of my crops by planting more herbs and useful ingredients for things like potpourri, salves and of course soap. I started investing time into soap making in the summer, with the plan that I would have something to sell at craft shows and other venues during the off season. I figured it would be good in different ways because I would not only have some sales, but also be able to promote my seasonal farm business as well. I saw soap as the holy grail of farm products because it has an old world quality to it and I already knew it is a craft in itself. Finally I made a few good batches of soap after many, many, MANY trial batches. When it comes to soap you really don’t know if you have a good recipe until it has had time to cure and prove itself as shelf stable. It goes without saying that it has to have a great lather and be as beneficial as possible. Eventually people wanted the soap more than they wanted the vegetables and plants.
Q – 2) What I love about your soaps is, really, everything. The lather, scents, moisture, longevity, design, size, ingredients, firmness, and more. I know that you switched from making soaps with fragrance to truly natural and organic soaps with at least 50% organic ingredients and sustainable organic palm oil. What inspired your switch, and what I really want to know is what was your process in crafting what I consider a perfect soap?
A: Thank you for the high praise! Over 6 years of perfecting has gone into my products. My switch back to 100% natural has been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to make that switch for a few years now because it’s actually how I started out. It’s more “me”. My main mission was to use only essential oils and as many organic ingredients as possible. Many of the fragrant products were very, very popular and I did try to keep that as natural as possible by using only phthalate- free, but fragrances are still synthetic no matter what. I don’t think we have enough regulation on fragrances to really truly know what is in them. California has stepped up and started regulating certain compounds in fragrances. Finding out about some of their laws started to make me realize that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. I started using fragrances soon after I introduced my soaps for sale because the demand for certain scents like fruity combinations and heavy florals was big. The marketplace is supersaturated with products like that and I felt I needed to change and finally come back to my roots. The transition has been difficult in a lot of ways due to the demand for the fragrances, but many of my regular customers have stayed with me because I made a point to continue many of the same or similar herbal combinations that I had already been making since day one.
My process for making the perfect bar of soap is really what keeps me so interested in soap making. I am science geek for sure and soap making is a perfect match for me. Calculating a perfect batch of soap is all about balancing the numbers. You want a recipe that looks good on paper, but also has all of the other desirable qualities like shape, scent retention, longevity, etc. Soap actually gets better with age, so shelf life is also important. I have formulated many different soap recipes over the years. When I made the decision to reinvent my business I saw this as an opportunity to reformulate my soap a little bit. When I first started out I didn’t realize that so many people where allergic to soybean oil, avocado oil and even grapeseed oil… all great ingredients. I decided not to use these in my most of my products and stay with the best ingredients that are not as likely to be allergens. I am trying to use as many certified organic carrier oils as well. This was also something I did when I first started, but I found that the availability of some of the organic carrier oils can be iffy. It is frustrating some times when you literally have to stop making soap until you can find an alternate supplier. Things have gotten better though. Now that organic palm oil has had a spotlight on it for so long it seems to be easier to get. There are many concerns that I think about when using a botanical ingredient. I have a background in horticulture so I know the issues that some crops pose to the environment and to humans as well. I can honestly say that years of thought have gone into what I’m doing now and what ingredients I am using.
Q – 3) Describe your creative process. How do you usually get ideas for a new soap or body care product, and what is your process for creating and testing?
A: My creative process usually varies. A lot of times I take requests from customers. I learned early on that customers do know best. Some of my most popular scents like lavender lemongrass actually came from customer requests. That will often inspire me to put my twist on a scent blend and create what will hopefully be a nice bar of soap. I also draw inspiration from nature. Sometimes just going to the beach or a nature hike can bring up ideas for scent blends. I like to work with themes, sometimes a little too much maybe. I usually get inspired by a theme like a “tropical shampoo bar” for example. I like the challenge of taking that idea into every level of the product creation… the scent, the carrier oils, the packaging and sometimes even a little further like a tropical tea infusion. Product testing is where my passion for creating a great product comes out. Persistence is needed with this part of it. Most of the time it’s at least 3 months before a new product has proven itself worthy for sale. I usually make and test different batches with varying differences.
Years ago I was really apprehensive when it came to lotion. It took me about a year of trial and error to finally get to the product introduction stage. With every product there are many considerations. I have to think about the possibilities after a product leaves my workshop. It has to hold up as best as I can make it perform. So, product testing is actually one of the most important parts of the entire process.
Q – 4) What do you like to do when you are not creating soaps?
A: I love listening to music… all different kinds from 90s alternative to techno… including my own music that I make. It’s great to get into a rhythm for soap making. I also like to have the curtains open to get a view of the gardens and wildlife while I’m soaping. It is very inspirational. It’s great when it’s raining too, watching the water drip off of the leaves of the trees.
Q – 5) What is your favorite ingredient to use and why?
A: That is tough one to answer. I’d have to say shea butter. I use organic unrefined African shea butter that is fair trade. It is so different from other types of shea butter, especially the kind that has been refined. Unrefined shea has a sense of the earth to it. The scent is very unique… you can just imagine the shea trees in a hot, dry savannah. There is a exotic woodiness to the scent. It’s also interesting to think of the shea farmers (who tend to be women) harvesting and preparing the butter. The butter has such a creaminess to it in its raw state. It brings an incredible amount of moisturizing properties and other benefits to bath products.
Q – 6) What is your favorite soap or other product to make?
A: I enjoy making the seasonal products the most. It’s fun to come up with new ideas each year for each season. The fall and winter soaps are the most fun… I tend to put variations on them every year to keep it interesting.
Q – 7) Can you describe the best feedback you’ve ever received, or describe an interaction that you had that made you feel good about your creations?
A: I tend to get a lot of great feedback especially from people with eczema. At one of the farmers’ markets that I use to attend a mother bought a bar of my soap for her daughter, who had eczema. Her skin cleared up very quickly and the mother was overjoyed at the results. That was a great moment to realize I had helped the girl so much who had been suffering with the skin condition.
Q – 8) What plans do you have for your offerings in the fall and for coming months? What should we be looking out for?
A: I always have plans for something new for the fall and winter. This year I will be offering a pumpkin spice soap (probably will be called pumpkin pie). I have offered a similar soap in the past, but this year it’s all essential oils. The big surprise is that it will be shaped like a slice of pie. I am getting in to more specific molds to make it a little bit more fun and seasonal. I will have other seasonal soaps of course, but I do also plan to offer more scrub and lotion scents. I have also had many requests for roll-on perfumes, so those are on the agenda as well.
Q – 9) Do you have any favorite crafters or artisans that you would like to share with us?
A: There seems to be an unspoken relationship between soap makers and potters. We seem to be obsessed with each other’s work. This can be a good thing when we are at the same craft shows. I have two favorite pottery artisans. The first is called Meadow Point (by Holly Shaw from Connecticut). I first met her at a craft show. I have (eh hmmm) several pieces of her work. She does exquisite nature themed vessels and other work. The second is Glazed Over… very funny name and amazing artist from New York. I like the whimsical features of her work and use of color. Pottery is one of the great arts where form and function come together in perfect harmony.
Q – 10) What advice would you give to budding artisans who are looking to present their wares to the public?
A: I’ll try not to use too many clichés, but most of them do apply here. You have to go into it realizing it isn’t about the money. If you truly love it, that part will come (sometimes a little at a time). It might take a little longer to get there these days though. Persistence is needed for sure. I think it’s tough to be an artisan and you have to keep in mind that you are also a salesperson. In a way the two things don’t go together very well. I struggle with that sometimes. I hate to think that I need to be pushy to make sales for my own creations. If someone is just starting out, don’t get discouraged by one or two craft shows or other venues. It takes a little while to get noticed and build up a reputation.