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Handcrafted soap done smooth
by CHRISTINA WILLIAMS
“I’ve always been interested in handmade soaps,” says Sheila Gregg, creator of the local body and bath line called Smoothie Essentials.
The former accountant now sells handcrafted soaps and related products at several local retail outlets, including Country Aire and Good to Go in Port Angeles, The Red Rooster Grocery in Sequim, and The Picket Fence in Quilcene.
As Gregg’s schedule allows, she sells at the Port Angeles Farmers Market in warmer months. She hopes to be there this August, so watch for her. Gregg also looks forward to seeing her customers at two upcoming annual events in Port Angeles: Arts in Action on July 26-28, and the Crab Fest in October.
For those of you who like to plan your holiday shopping well in advance, listen up: Gregg is particularly fond of her annual appearance at the Christmas show at Chimacum High School.
“It’s always a real ego booster,” she explains, “because I’ll have people come to my booth saying, ‘I’m so happy that you’re here again this year, and I came just to buy your soap!’ It’s really gratifying to have customers come back and tell me that they appreciate my soap — it’s a neat feeling.”
Gregg started her soap business 10 years ago after taking a class in lotion-making from a local teacher.
“The class was a lot of fun,” she recalls, and after doing some of her own Internet research, she “started playing with the formula” to create a lotion that she really liked.
When she began making her own product, a neighbor encouraged her to sell it at the local farmers market. Gregg found the market experience delightful.
A “fellow market neighbor” observed that there were no soap makers at the venue, and suggested that she try her hand at making soap; it seemed like a perfect companion product to her lotion. Gregg remembers, “One batch and I was hooked!”
Now Smoothie Essentials offers about 20 different soap fragrances at any given time. All varieties of her soap are made with her proprietary blend of fats that are plant-sourced only. Gregg’s strict adherence to her recipe ensures the consistent quality of her soap. She strives to produce a long-lasting bar that is richly scented and produces a creamy lather.
Even before she became a soap maker, Gregg loved to attend craft markets. Whenever she found a booth selling handmade soaps, she admits, “I had to smell every one of them!”
She looks for strong and interesting fragrances and noticed that they were often hard to find.
“I was searching for something with more fragrance,” she says, “something that was interesting to me.”
Gregg has since created an unusual soap that has become one of her most popular. Called “Dirty Cowgirl,” the soap initially draws a lot of attention because of its unusual name. After one whiff, both men and women seem to enjoy its balanced earthy mixture of cedar and saffron fragrance oils.
Other top selling soaps include the refreshing “Lemon Grass” and the ever popular “Lavender,” a favorite local scent that she used in her very first batch.
As Gregg gives a grand tour of her home-based soap making digs, she removes an amber-colored bottle from her supply of scented oils. She takes the lid off the bottle, and a heady fruit aroma escapes into the room. “Blackberry,” she announces with a smile, as the classic Northwest scent brings to mind the seasonal delights of summer. Gregg uses only high-grade essential and fragrance oils to scent all of her products.
She wants to give her soaps a rich scent, but she is careful not to push the limit. “I try not to make them too overpowering,” Gregg says. “There’s a fine line between overpowering and not being able to smell it very well!”
One of her more powerful soaps is called “Licorice.” It is actually made with anise oil, and the soap has a strong yet smooth aroma. She recalls a legend about licorice soap: It is said to bring good luck to fishermen who place it in their tackle boxes.
Even though Gregg has retired from accounting, she has redirected her eye for detail in her career as a soap maker. She carefully tests her soap recipes and remains true to them once she feels that they’re perfected.
“I want my soaps to turn out consistent batch after batch,” she explains, “and so I’m very precise with all my measurements.”
While a slight color variation is OK, she’s a stickler for following her soap and fragrance formulas to the letter.
Gregg records every batch and every formula for future reference to ensure the ongoing quality of her product.
As a soap maker, what does she look for in a bar of soap? Pure ingredients are important, and so are mildness and the right balance of scent. And then there’s the matter of the soap’s hardness. Gregg opens a five-gallon drum to display the snowy texture of solid coconut oil, explaining that, “Coconut makes a nice hard bar.” It’s a soap’s hardness that makes it last.
How does a professional judge hardness? Gregg’s eyes twinkle as she shares this tip, “I just pinch it!”
After making a batch of soap, Gregg pours it into a form. Then she cuts the hardened soap into two sections, and slices each one with a bar cutter that she proudly displays in her “soap” kitchen. The cutter was custom-made for her by a talented gentleman who even cast its aluminum parts to suit her needs.
Once her batch of soap is cut, it yields 44 bars of soap. She stamps each bar with her Smoothie logo and bevels the edges of the soap by hand.
Gregg explains that soap hardens soon after it’s made, but that it can continue to cure for a year or more afterwards. Therefore, it may continue to shrink as curing occurs.
Gregg said she is “tickled” when retailers like The Red Rooster Grocery in Sequim display her soap in the same wooden boxes that she uses when she sells her wares at the farmer’s market.
Whether you buy from Gregg directly or find her soap at a local retailer, take time to smell her huge selection — especially since she just added two new scents to her line: “Mochalatta” and “Jasmine.”
Be forewarned, however: You’ll likely find more than one favorite.