Hands On - Carrie Sheehan

Carrie puts the finishing touches on the Oats & Honey soap

Carrie puts the finishing touches on the Oats & Honey soap

It was a dark and stormy night (catchy intro, don’t you think?), when I made my way up to Ringwood, NJ to meet Carrie Sheehan, a soap and jar candle maker.  I found Carrie’s business from an internet search for soap makers in early October.  We were finally able to connect on the Thursday night before Thanksgiving and were both grateful that the falling rain wasn’t snow.

Carrie works from her kitchen and basement studio, so we met at her house.  She has suffered from eczema and has been making bath and body products for her own use for many years, but when the hospital where she worked a nurse was bought out a few years ago, she started making soap as a commercial venture.  She started out by taking an online class, which sent soap ingredients in a kit for the monthly lessons.  Over the years, she has done a lot of research and learning about the process and the ingredients, along with a bit of experimentation.

On the night I caught up with Carrie, she made three soaps: Lavender Calendula, Oats & Honey and Rosemary Mint.  Carrie had prepared the lye in advance and gave me a good warning about the dangers of working with lye, so I kept my distance and used a zoom lens!  She carefully measured out the oils she was mixing with the lye and added them all to a bucket.  She used a kitchen immersion blender (instruments dedicated to soapmaking) to emulsify the mixture and it began to thicken to an almost milkshake consistency; the resulting substance is called “trace.”  At the trace phase, fragrances and botanicals are added to the mix.  Once blended, the mixture was put in a mold where the process of saponification - where lye breaks down oils into soap - happens.  The mold was wrapped in a blanket to insulate and aid the saponification process; soaps are usually solidified in 24 hours, but require  4-6 weeks or longer to cure and be safe to use. For example, soap made with 100% olive oil takes up to a year to fully cure.  Once the soap is solid, it is sliced into bars.  In addition to a loaf shaped mold, Carrie often uses chocolate molds and purpose-made soap molds to get different shapes which she uses for her party favors.

Carrie demonstrates some of the steps in the soap making process

Carrie demonstrates some of the steps in the soap making process

When making the Rosemary Mint soap, Carrie split the initial trace mix into two and added Mica to one part.  Mica is a shimmery substance (as used in eyeshadows and other make up products) that gave the mix a color (it is olive green in the images above) and will show as color in the final soap.   The final mix was “spoon plopped” which meant she added the two parts of the mix to the mold by dropping it in with a spoon.  This gives an interesting pattern when there are multiple colors.  In addition to spoon plopping, Carrie sometimes uses a chop stick to swirl different colors and other techniques to get a particular look.

While making soap seems like a straightforward process, Carrie says that there is a lot to learn about the chemistry of how oils blend with the lye.  You need to be particularly careful with the proportions of lye vs. each type of oil used.  A lye calculator and scale is always used to ensure the proportions are correct.  In addition, every oil has properties which benefit certain skin conditions, so that is considered as well when determining soap recipes.

While Carrie attends some craft fairs and this year is supporting a couple “pop up boutiques” for the holidays, she gets the majority of her sales through Etsy.  If you need unique party favors for bridal or baby showers, weddings, holiday parties, etc. or are tired of commercial soaps, definitely visit her Etsy site at www.etsy.com/shop/BrowniesandGinger.  I have to say that Carrie’s creativity was impressive - both with her soaps and her packaging.  She has a lot of beach themed soaps (sand dollars, starfish), which she packages in a pail.  In preparation for a recent show, she made “Man soap” from beer, and packaged it with a mustache decoration – she was expecting it would be a bust, but it flew off the shelves!  As we were wrapping up the shoot, Carrie gave me a goody bag, which included the cutest mason jar filled with gingerbread men shaped soap; she also makes them with snowflakes and snowmen. 

I’d like to thank Carrie, as well as her husband and their three daughters, for allowing me to invade their home with my camera.  I had a great time chatting about Brownies & Ginger and the soap making process, as well as the considerations of running an online business.  I’d also like to thank her for the goody bag; it will be put to good use!