Jan of Sunlit Soap was the first winner of the #SoapShare contest on Instagram that I started about a year ago. The moment I saw her gorgeous Meryt Mermaid Soap, I knew immediately she was the winner. Jan has a keen eye for design, and it shows in every bar. She is a master of pairing colors, utilizing mica lines to create definition, and using just the right amount of sparkle. Jan also takes beautiful photographs, which really sets her products apart. Read more about Jan, including how she got started soaping 15 years ago, her photography advice and her top soaping tips. -A.M.
Jan’s Harlequin Soap is the perfect example of Jan’s expert use of color, layers and mica lines.
How long have you been soaping for and how did you get started?
More than fifteen years. The idea hit me after randomly spotting a local class offering. I didn’t pursue the class, but shortly thereafter my Mom asked for birthday gift hints and I mentioned a book on soapmaking. At the time it was not the widespread craft that it is today, and online information was nowhere near as prevalent. Mom delivered, and soon I was consumed by the pages of “The Complete Soapmaker: Tips, Techniques & Recipes for Luxurious Handmade Soaps” by Norma Coney. The colors, textures, shapes, process – all of it – proved irresistible. Interestingly, that edition referred to the use of clothing dye as soap colorant. A lot has changed (and no I never tried that). My first batches of soap were hand-stirred castile, as I hadn’t yet figured out where to find other supplies besides olive oil and Red Devil lye. I’ll never forget cutting in to the first solid batch, holding a bit under running water, and finding that it was, in fact, soap. So began a love for this craft that has woven its way through my very soul.
What sort of advice would you give to those soapers just starting their businesses?
Soapmaking has blossomed in popularity and there are a lot of makers out there vying for exposure and sales. I learned to establish what was important to me and what I wanted to get out of my business right now, and began to measure my progress against that instead of comparing it to what others were doing. In my case, that meant shifting my focus from sales volume and revenue metrics to the gratification I get from the actual making. With a busy full-time job, I don’t have a lot of free time to sustain more than a small-scale operation. Ironically, once I released myself from the pressure to produce and sell at the same (perceived) rate as other makers, I found that I was happier and my sales actually increased. The advice? Learn from others, be open to growth and change, and never be afraid to take a path that is uniquely yours.
What is your favorite type of product to make?
Cold process soap. My appetite for all aspects of it, from inspiration to execution, is insatiable. Unveiling and cutting every single batch is Christmas for me. Every. Single. One.
Jan’s stunning French Market cold process soap.
What inspires you to create?
Frankly, almost everything. My best-selling soap got its color scheme from a favorite pair of running shoes. A beautiful and unique wood grain on the wall of a restaurant led to a soap called “Sweetwood” with a combination of colors and a swirl that I might not have thought of without that visual cue. Sometimes I’ll spot a color combination – nature is extraordinarily helpful there – that triggers an idea. Other times a particular ingredient, or a theme, or a person will get my imagination going. I have spells where I’m not generating new ideas – we all do. When that happens I focus on designs that are tried and true (can you say restock?). When my brain fires with new ideas they usually come in lots, so I’m in the habit of keeping a list on my phone with notes which allows me to capture the ideas when they hit and develop them as I’m able. It’s paramount to me to generate my own fresh ideas and designs.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
I am a collector of suns, so “Sunlit” was an easy decision for me. I designed the logo very early on and have never changed it. My trademark logo soap stamp, always dusted with copper mica before each stamping, has helped to establish my brand.
Your soapy designs are so creative and beautiful! What’s your favorite soapy technique?
Thank you! It’s tough to choose just one technique. I love soap as a medium in part due to the almost limitless approaches you can take with it. If I had to choose one it would likely be a drop swirl. It’s loose and random and a little bit mad scientist. Because of that I think it’s the most fun to cut into the next day, and many of my favorite designs have incorporated the technique.
Your Instagram page features lots of lovely photos. What tips do you have for taking product photos on Instagram?
Good photography is mission critical. I have no formal training, but through a lot of practice, googling and a few helpful books, I’ve learned how to take photos that do justice to my work. That said, I still have a lot to learn. So far, these tips have worked for me:
- Research and invest in a good DSLR camera and lens (I favor a macro) – expensive but worth it.
- Bokeh: Google this effect and learn how to achieve it for more sophisticated product photos.
- Don’t use too many props. They can be more of a distraction than a compliment.
- Take an absurd number of shots, from all angles, in varied settings and lighting. Most of them won’t be keepers, but you will learn which circumstances produce desired results.
- Indirect natural light works best for me. Avoid severe shadows.
Sunflower Cold Process Soap, made with citrus and lavender essential oils.
What is your favorite Bramble Berry product and why?
The copper mica I use with my soap stamp is Brambleberry Copper Sparkle Mica. Nothing else compares – it is the mica with the MOST sparkle. I’m also a big fan of many of the quality fragrance oils, including Summer Melon Spritzer, Vanilla Select, and Plumeria – all regulars in my line. Aside from the quality product, learning and information offerings to Brambleberry’s credit, I really love and appreciate their endeavors to share the work and stories of small makers, like me, all over the world.
La Meridienne Soap, inspired by Madame Antoinette.
Tell us something unusual or unique about yourself!
While attempting to answer this question, I realized that it’s possible I could be boring (insert ‘deer in headlights’ look here). I think much of what is unique about me is by proxy of the people I am lucky to have in my life. I have the most wonderful, kind, and selfless people in the world for parents, and can’t wait to share this article with them. I am happily married to my soul mate and best friend. He supports my crazy soap addiction, makes me laugh every day, and always has my back. I am proud stepmom to two of the most amazing individuals on the planet, and mom to Maggie Magpie (the cat). I have a big sister who (despite being mentioned after the cat) has always been my touchstone and grounding force, and her daughters are beautiful, inspiring people. Not lucky. Blessed. Yes!
Me? By day I am the Director of Human Resources and a member of the executive management team of a burgeoning international enterprise search and big data solutions firm. In my free time, I play on two soccer teams. This isn’t unusual unless you’re 47, at which point it becomes an odd combination of surprising and risk-seeking. Also, I chain-watch the ID channel while making soap.
What are some of your other hobbies and interests?
My drive for the making of the things is endless, and I thrive on creative challenges. I’ve made a wedding cake for a friend, sewed a prom dress for my gorgeous step-daughter, drawn portraits, and fired up traditional and raku pottery. I’ve cut hair, dyed it, braided it every which way. Cooking? Yes! Especially for my husband and step-son. You should see those boys eat. To me, making is rooted in love. Love of what you’re doing as well as who you’re doing it for, and the desire to cause happiness for another.
This gorgeous Moonlit Soap is made with pine, ozone and sandalwood.
What is your number one soaping tip?
Don’t make soap when you’re in a bad mood. Just don’t.
Aside from that, I employ lip balm tubes to store and dispense glitter samples. Like most soapers, I make lip balms or butters on occasion and have the twist tubes on hand. Use a thumb-tack to poke ten or-so holes in the cap. Remove the cap, twist up and remove the inside base part (the part that pushes the lip balm up when you twist). Cut a small corner off of the sample bag of glitter and carefully pour into the lip balm container. Replace the cap, and you have a mini-dispenser on the cheap. As a bonus, it will apply the glitter sparingly. We’ve all emerged, on occasion, with glitter in our hair and even our teeth following a soap session that perhaps lacked restraint with the shiny stuff. No? Just me? All said, when the dust (and glitter) settles, I personally prefer the look of finished soaps with just a hint of the bling.
Bermuda Sands Cold Process Soap. I love the subtle pink ombre in each layer, and the mica lines really help them pop.
Have you ever experienced a horrible soapy fail? How did you work through it, and what did you learn?
Oh, yes. Many, in fact. Soapmaking is an excellent vehicle for building character, isn’t it? I use a good amount of olive oil in my soaps. At one point I switched brands because I found a reasonably priced resource close to home. The new brand was counterfeit (likely a blend of soybean, sunflower and olive oils manipulated to look and smell like pure olive oil). Unfortunately, it took several soft batches before I was able to identify the culprit. Along the way, I turned to my trusted and dog-eared copy of “Scientific Soapmaking: The Chemistry of Cold Process” by Kevin Dunn. Kevin helped me keep my frustrated inner artist at bay and focus on methodically eliminating possibilities for the problem one by one. It was very gratifying to get my soaping mojo back, and all’s well that ends well. Oh, and Bertolli, BJ’s… I’m lookin’ at y’all.
Jan’s Bourbon Vanilla Bliss Soap, check out that amazing swirl!
What do you love most about creating bath and body products?
Form, function and feeling. I get a kick out of replacing an innocuous commodity with something that elicits a reaction. Beyond just cleaning us, soap can entice our senses of smell, touch, and sight. I’d like to think that the love, care and creativity I invest in my soaps have a positive effect on the people who use them, and to me that is a form of connection. This is more eloquently described in a quote I frequently reference by the late Kojiro Tomita:
“It has been said that art is a tryst;
for in the joy of it, maker and beholder meet.”