CheltenhamMaman HQ was delighted to visit the chocolate box Cotswold town of Broadway to meet founder of The Little Soap Company, Emma Heathcote-James and to concoct her very own soap in The Little Soap School.
CheltenhamMaman HQ: Emma it’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re as pretty in life as you are on the website! Before we get our safety goggles on tell me what was the lightbulb moment when you realised you were destined to make soap?
Emma: Well I used to be a researcher in television and a bizarre combination of events led me to make the dramatic jump to starting up on my own. As a family we always grew up using soap rather than shower gels. My Gran travelled the world and would bring home soap form wherever she went building up a huge stash of all sorts of different kinds and scents of soap. It was the only way to wash I knew! We always had soap on tap for years and years – when Gran died my Mum and I realised that her stashes were running low and I turned my thoughts to how to create my own supply. I’ve always been a creator, a maker so I started making soap at home and packaged it as gifts for my friends and family but it always crumbled, I just couldn’t get the consistency of Granny’s stashes which I now know was because I wasn’t using the right recipe and oil combination!
Then came Bretforton Village Fete where I met an amazing lady who was making and selling soap – we chatted, I bought a bar and it was the lightbulb moment – this was better than any of Granny’s soap – I called her the next day, drove to Oxford and wiped her out of her supplies. It was then she announced she was moving to Spain – I couldn’t let her go without sharing her recipe for this amazing natural soap. She sold it to me and that was when, armed with an amazing recipe I could then use to make for my family, I started to get serious about soap.
Then one day I found myself with a major house disaster in my Cotswold home when a leak in my bathroom turned into a huge renovation mission that meant I was without a bathroom for six weeks. My wonderful neighbours created a rota for me to use their showers and I even had a key to use the loo in the church graveyard! It was during this time that I realised that most people don’t use soap! They use a range of chemical laden products that in many cases cause skin irritations or problems that my lovely neighbours didn’t even realise are directly linked to their products. That was when I got hooked on soap vs shower gel. I made extra bars for my neighbours insisting they give it a go, and of course, those with psoriasis and eczema all noticed an immediate improvement…. as with any hobby, I was soon making far too much to give away to friends and family and that was when The Little Soap Company was born.
CheltenhamMaman HQ: And since then? How has the business evolved and grown?
Emma: Well I set up in 2008 as a hobby business selling at farmers markets whilst still working and was one of the first companies to be stocked in Waitrose in their first year of trading. It was only in 8 regional stores but this gave me the confidence I needed to pitch the product to more retailers so that was fine by me. I had to hand deliver to begin with; standing alongside huge lorries with my little wine box of soap. I was then asked to speak at a Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE) event and was asked some challenging questions by one audience member about why I didn’t manufacture more and really maximise profits and I held my ground defending my reasons for wanting to offer a quality artisan product. Turns out the lady was a Tesco buyer who visited me at home shortly after asking for 40,000 units.
I thought it through for a really long time as upscaling would mean an entirely different monster – not to mention risk. I worked really hard to find a factory I liked but eventually found one and took the plunge, gave up my full time job and fulfilled the order. That was 2012, the following year we rolled out into Waitrose nationally, Booths, Boots, Sainsburys – last year we launched an exclusive range of ten lines into Waitrose and this year we went into Whole Foods, soon we’re rolling out into Ocado. So now we have two ranges; the supermarket range made in the factory and the artisan, hand made soap we make here on site.
CMHQ: Who would you say inspired you? Any icons or mentors.
Emma: Well I mentioned my Gran who instilled in me my love of proper soap. Business wise of course Anita Roddick of The Body Shop. From a mentoring perspective WiRE were a huge help during the initial set up period. They were established initially as a support for Farmer’s wives (who typically were the people diversifying a decade or so ago as farming was under such pressure to turn a profit and the farmers were so tied up with the core farm work.) They still exist and for an artisan, rural product they remain a great source of support. In fact I went down to Westminster the other year representing WiRE as a witness at the Women in the Workplace enquiry at Parliament – soap really does take me everywhere – who knew?!
CMHQ: Emma if you could go back to 2002 and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
Emma: Such an easy question to answer…. look after yourself. I have some workaholic tendencies and I would throw every hour I had into the business, seldom take holidays and when I did I couldn’t relax. It was only two or three years ago that I started properly exercising and it was like a cloud lifted. I had always suffered really badly with insomnia and anxiety and both just magically lifted. I now run three or four times a week and I love yoga – they say that when you are at your most busy exercise is even more important and I truly believe it and would have saved myself weeks of worry in those early days if I’d twigged it sooner! Exercise is now scheduled in my i-Cal with the same importance as a business meeting or engagement.
CMHQ: What are you most enjoying about your role in the business now?
Emma: Probably the fact no two days are the same – that I’m able to diversify and mix things up. I’m a Pisces so don’t like feeling trapped and stuck doing the same thing – I like to ebb and flow and have multiple plates spinning. Now that I have a great team of people around me it means that I can mix up what it is that I spend my time doing in the business. I’ve just embarked on a large project teaching soap making to the inmates at Eastwood Prison as part of a corporate responsibility programme and it’s just fascinating the things you learn about life. Putting back is so important to me and my time there means I meet so many interesting people as well. That has led me to start up a new not for profit business making knickers there too – I would never have imagined that six months ago!
CMHQ: So now, your downtime… how do you spend it?
I’m getting better at this. I love staying at home as much as I love to travel – you can’t beat a lazy brunch at Daylesford. I’m not a Maman so I’m not as tied at the weekends as you amazing lot! My Partner is a Mum though so I do have some idea of what it takes. I recently lost my beloved elderly black lab but country walks are still a big part of weekends. Animals are a huge part of my life; we have tortoises a cat, sheep and probably a puppy before too long (shhhhh!)
CMHQ: So… show me how we make soap….
Aha so come into my workshop! So we mix olive, coconut and sustainable palm oil together and melt them on the hob. That’s the fats.
Then in a separate pan we make the lye, so measure out the water and (gloves and safety specs on) we pour the sodium hydroxide into the water. Measurements need to be exact – you can’t just shake it in and hope for the best or you’ll have a dodgy science experiment on your hands – believe me – we’ve been there before! It’s all about ratios and saponification values but you don’t need to worry about that – I’ve done the maths for you! Then we need to let this cool to the correct temperature using a thermometer to be sure.
Before the fats can be mixed with the lye both need to be at the right temperature, between 95 and 125 degrees F.
While we wait for the pans to cool down let’s get creative – come and design your soap.
CMHQ: (gazes at the delicious array of fragrance oils on offer)
Emma: So what do you fancy?
CMHQ: oooh grapefruit. I love citrus scents.
Emma: Ok… so how about mixing that with orange and lemon essential oils. Then you need a nutrient oil…. avocado, plum kernel (smells just like marzipan), Macademia, Apricot …..
CMHQ: Apricot please.
Emma: So now we very slowly pour the lye into the fat pan and stir it really carefully while it thickens, kind of like a white sauce. When you hit the right consistency (or TRACE as we call it in the industry) it’s time to add the apricot (nutrient oil) and then the essential oils (in this case grapefruit, lemon and orange.) Did you want to add an exfoliator or any of these other goodies (oatmeal, hops, dried peels, pumice, seeds etc.)
CMHQ: oooh poppy seeds please. (Click into the photos to see a full size gallery.)
EMMA: Ok, in they go and let’s add a natural oxide to give it a swirly effect – what colour?
CMHQ: Oh god the choice is too much! It’s like being in a sweet shop…. purple, let’s do purple.
EMMA: Ok so we line our mould and in half of it goes. Then we pour some of the dye through the other half, pout that on top and swirl.
CMHQ: Oh it’s so pretty! It’s wet though how soon will it start to solidify?
Emma: very quickly. Pretty much straight away. So you take it home, leave it for twenty four hours and then cut it into bars. Then it has to cure (or rest) before use for four weeks. So your ‘wash day’ is in a month.
CMHQ: Emma I love it, I’m gonna smell like a dream! If I’d done one of your workshops is this what I would have done?
Emma: Yes but in a much bigger way. We’d spend the whole day making lots of batches, have some lunch, learn lots more tricks of the trade and you’d go home with masses and masses of soap and the confidence and knowledge to make it at home.
CMHQ: Thanks so much. Where can my readers find out more about your workshops? They’d make a great experience gift, mother daughter day out or even a ‘date day’ away from the kids.
Emma: Sure. We see all sorts of people coming to us for the day. We do workshops for groups of just one or two, up to six maximum and it’s a fun day but you learn so much and obviously come home with some great products you’ve created from scratch yourself. Izzy, Rachel and myself teach the soap making Intro Days, Bella and Karina teach the Creams and Balms courses as well as Aromatherapy and Perfume days…. Anna (my right hand lady) manages all of our bookings and all the info you need she has cleverly stored on our website. We call it The Little Soap School. Take a look to find out more about how it works and pricing.
CMHQ: So what next for The Little Soap Company?
Well we’re always thinking ahead. Anona is the newest member of our team focusing on growth and getting our products in to new places. We’ve recently launched our new ec0-soy candles and are just about to launch an organic range for pets called Little Beasts. It’s all on the website.
CMHQ: Thanks Emma. I think I may have fallen in love with natural soaps. I’m off home to banish the Radox to the bin and watch my very own handmade soap cure. The question is what the hell will I do until ‘wash day?” Will you write a blog post for us later in the year and share some of your business tips?
Emma: Of course. Can’t wait.