Soapmaking is the perfect combination of science and art. It requires a keen eye for design, and understanding of the chemical process. One soaper who consistently shows mastery in both the artistic and technical sides of soaping is Clara Lindberg of Auntie Clara’s Handcrafted Cosmetics. Clara’s soap is consistently stunning. In particular, Clara is known for her lace soaps (shown below). Clara is incredibly generous with her techniques, and shares many of them on her blog. You can find the tutorial for her silicone lace mats here, which inspired the Jasmine Lace Cold Process Tutorial. Read my interview with Clara below to learn more about her creative process, and advice for beginning soapers. -A.M.
Auntie Clara’s stunning Mexican Lace Soap, fragranced with a Black Raspberry Vanilla Fragrance Oil blend.
How long have you been soaping for, and how did you get started?
I started soaping in 2011. That’s only five years ago, but it’s also countless batches ago. I had been making creams and lotions mainly for myself for a few years before that, and in the process I had researched oils, essential oils, etc., quite extensively. In my research I often came across discussions on soaping forums, but I didn’t have any urge to start soaping until one day I was killing time in a bookstore in Helsinki. On a table of discounted books I found a book on handmade soap. Having time to spare, I leafed through the pages and decided that this looked like too much fun not to try at least once. I bought the book and walked to a coffee shop to see a friend. I showed her the book and told her; “Here’s what I’m going to be doing next.”
Over the following week I spent quite a bit of time reading up on soaping properties of oils and practicing how to calculate lye and lye discount (pen, paper, SAP chart, and calculator method), and once I felt I was on top of that I made my first batch. It was a soap I had formulated myself; it was a rush with a great sense of empowerment and I loved that first soap almost as much as I loved my newborn children. I’ve made some decent soap since, but no other soap have I been as proud of as that first one.
What sort of advice would you give to those soapers just starting their businesses?
Do your research well – and don’t make assumptions. In-depth knowledge of materials, processes, production, suppliers and the ins and outs of your market is invaluable. Of course, you will learn as you go, but when I hear people say “I can’t afford to experiment,” and “I don’t have time to read up and research,” I always wonder how you can afford NOT to experiment and research. Knowledge is a great asset and a small experiment gone south is always going to be less costly than a big commitment that doesn’t work out.
What is your favorite type of product to make?
I’m a cold process soaper. That’s my first love, and the chemistry and magic of it still gets me excited. There’s something enticing about the fact that a product as basic as soap can be so magnificently complex, and the prospect of being able to tame this complex thing into submission is quite thrilling. My personal preference tends to be for soap designs that reflect the character of the soap itself, its texture and its phases. Rather than to look at the soap as a vehicle for colour and fragrance, I like to think of colour and fragrance as something enhancing and emphasizing the soap itself.
Gold Bar Soap scented with a Kumquat Fragrance Oil blend.
What inspires you to create?
I’m a strongly task-oriented person, and making and creating is my way of existing and being happy. So the urge to make and create is never far away, and it usually doesn’t take very much to trigger it. I very pragmatically take inspiration for soapmaking wherever I can and often it’s things unrelated to soap that inspire my soaps. Because the chemistry and general dynamics of the soapmaking process interests me a lot, I often find inspiration in troubleshooting: why did this or that happen or not happen, and what could be done to change the outcome? etc.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
When my children were in primary school here in Cape Town, I would sometimes stand in for the grade 1 teacher. The children would all call me Auntie Clara as polite children do around here. To me it was a little amusing because I’m from Finland where nobody calls anybody’s mom Auntie this or that – ever. Anyway, when I sold lip balms at a school function they were sold as Auntie Clara’s lip balms. That’s how the name came about; it’s simple and so very ‘vintage’ that it stands out quite nicely.
Your photos are so gorgeous! What advice do you have for taking great pictures?
Thank you! I’m working on a blog post with some thoughts on soap photography and because I could talk about that all day, it’s getting kind of hard to narrow it down to easily palatable proportions. But I guess the most important thing I can say about it is – vision. Great photography is about seeing and showing, so by focusing on those things you will be heading in the right direction. In general, soap photography is about communication. You need to decide what it is that you want to communicate and work from there. To me the hardest part of photography is often the decision making: Which shot is better at telling the story? How much do you edit? Is it good enough?
We love seeing your soapy experiments on your blog. What is one of your favorite experiments you’ve done, and why? Have you ever been surprised by a certain result?
I see those soapy experiments as the most creative part of my soapmaking. To try and wrap my brain around why soap does what it does is a challenge I really enjoy. It is a little frustrating to think that my ‘discoveries’ are things that the commercial soapmaking world, the ‘big boys,’ have no doubt known about for decades, if not centuries, in one form or another, but making the connection between the chemistry of soapmaking and its practical applications in small-scale cold process soapmaking in a home environment still feels very rewarding to me.
It’s actually hard to point to a favourite; the experiments on my blog are more or less a sequence where one lesson leads to another. All of the experiments I’ve done are related to the effects of water discount and I’ve often been surprised by the results. One of the outcomes of the glycerine river experiments was the difference in overheating between low and high water soaps processed the same way. That definitely came as a surprise to me and lead to the other overheating experiments. There too I was surprised at what a big difference the water content made for the outcome.
Auntie Clara’s Delicious Monster Soap scented with Champagne Fragrance Oil.
What is your favorite Bramble Berry product and why?
With the current exchange rate, Bramble Berry’s products are very precious to those shopping with South African Rand. Hence there are lots of products on offer that I can only dream of trying at this point in time. That’s just how it is. But, I’m very impressed with the products – mainly fragrance oils – that I have tried. Every fragrance oil I’ve tried has soaped beautifully and the staying power of the fragrance has been excellent. Tobacco & Bay Leaf is definitely a favourite and somewhat surprisingly also Champagne. Both of these blend beautifully with a wide range of essential oils. Here in South Africa, high quality essential oils are readily available, but high quality fragrance oils are very scarce.
Tell us something unusual or unique about yourself!
My mother tongue is Swedish, my nationality is Finnish and I live and work in South Africa. On my father’s side I’m descended from the ancient Danish king Harold Bluetooth, after whom the Bluetooth device got its name, and on my mother’s side from the infamous Campbells of Glencoe. Both letters ‘a’ in my name Clara are pronounced like the ‘a’ in the word ‘bar.’
What are some of your other hobbies and interests?
I have a great love for antique textiles and I love to work with textile fibre. I own six spinning wheels and two floorlooms. I like a wide range of music, and art and I love good food and wine.
What is your number one soaping tip?
Soap doesn’t compromise and soap doesn’t do random. There’s always a reason. Soap does exactly what’s in its nature and it’s for you to learn to control the soap within the framework of that nature.
Sandalwood Rose Soap, colored with rose clay and activated charcoal.
Have you ever experienced a horrible soapy fail? How did you work through it, and what did you learn?
More than I care to remember. My first complete fail was discovering 20% of the oils standing on the countertop when the soap had been poured and swirled and tucked away under its isolating blankets. It was a complete fail because it never crossed my mind to just pour it all out again (possibly in the crock) and mix in the 20%. Today I’d do that, but back in the day I didn’t. I learnt to keep checklists though.
What do you love most about creating bath and body products?
In addition to all the things mentioned above, I love the idea of pouring all this energy into a truly useful product. I also like the idea of soap being consumable, something that isn’t made to last forever but to be used and enjoyed – and savoured so much more because of its ephemeral nature.