Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Buying Handmade Soap On Etsy

I know a lot of crafters do what I did for many years. In my twenties and early thirties I found myself infinitely fascinated by dozens of crafting media. I find I am the kind of person who can pick up new crafting methods fairly quickly. Knowing this, I would get excited, inspired, obsessive and collect all the materials and how-to books to learn a new craft. The craft might or might not take, however.

Polymer Clay has stayed with me for twenty years! Felting is a relatively new passion (a few years now) but it seems to have staying power, I'm doing it every day without any end in sight for my enjoyment of it.

At various other points I thought I would love to quilt, make lampwork beads, learn ceramics, do metalwork and enameling, make soap and candles from scratch, etc. I was just going through some old books stored at my parents' house and they tell the tale of what didn't stick. In some cases I did do some part of the craft for a little while. For instance, I did make little patchwork backpacks using vintage fabrics in the early nineties. I did make my own patterns for quilts but never actually made the quilts. I bought all the candle making molds, wicks and wax I would need, plus an old aluminum double boiler, but the candles never got made.

I made some lampwork beads on the back porch of my aunt's house in Indiana (I love being related to cool artists!) and was thoroughly fascinated and blown away by the amazingness of it, but that was also the point at which I realized that fire and pressurized tanks of flammable gas scare the crap out of me!

I found in my pile of books (soon to be donated to the Friends of Western Avenue Studios Booksale April 4th, 12-5) three pertaining to soap making. I remember I had gotten as far as finding out I would need beef tallow from the butcher, caustic lye, careful measurements and eye protection and that was the end of that adventure. (I know you can also make soap with vegetable oils and not animal fats, which most Etsy soapers do and that those oils are expensive!!)

I did subsequently get the supplies to make my own melt and pour soaps and that was perfect for me as a hobbyist. With melt and pour, you buy a pre-made glycerin soap base that can be cut into chunks which you then melt in the microwave, add scent, color and maybe ground almonds or the like and pour it into molds and let it set up. Instant soap! The soaps are only as good as the bases you buy, the colorants and oils you add etc. I went for nicer bases but they still weren't anything I would ever have considered selling. They are good handsoaps and I made some cute guest soaps as stocking stuffers.

The point is, at some point you figure out what you are going to do as an artist and what you are going to leave to others for whom it is a true passion. As I catch up on 40, it becomes clearer and clearer what I will not be devoting learning time to and one of those skills is cold or hot process soap making.

Luckily, it turns out that Etsy is loaded with tons of amazing soapers! I can see that most soapers are NOT hobbyists. It takes skill, patience, immense amounts of knowledge and a certain understanding of chemistry. If you read the Etsy forums when soapers start talking, you can see that they are all extremely professional and dedicated to quality and education. It's very exciting for someone like me to witness! These soapers know their stuff and they want you to know it too, because what's sold out there as commercial soap apparently includes all kinds of nasty ingredients that dry out your skin while the carefully crafted soaps made by dedicated artisans contain super high quality ingredients that are safe and skin loving!

So my new hobby is soap buying on Etsy :) We use these soaps in the shower every day. I have tried three sellers so far and have been extremely pleased with all of them. I started back in the fall so the scents I bought were more suited to cozy winter days. As spring approaches I am looking through gorgeous listings seeking a perfect new fresh scent.

What do I look for in a handmade soap? Actually, I am chemically sensitive. But my sensitivity is very selective. Some scents are no problem for me and some give me an instant headache and bright red cheeks. Essential oils are oils from natural sources like plants. Fragrance oils are synthetic. I can tolerate some of both somehow, which you wouldn't think, but not all scents. I seem to be OK with food smells like almond, cinnamon, chocolate, pumpkin and coffee. I can also tolerate some flower smells. This can make it tricky to select soaps online, but I figure if I accidentally choose something I can't use it makes a gorgeous gift!

So first I look for scent. Actually, that's a lie, first I look for gorgeous product photos. What difference do photos make? None to the quality of the soap of course, but I want an experience when I shop for soaps online. I expect to pay between $4.50 and $8.00 a bar for handmade soaps and as such, I want my shopping experience to be spa-like. I want to enter a virtual shop and be calmed or energized or dazzled by gorgeous, lush product shots. I want the soap shop to sell me the whole experience! Plus it gives me more confidence in their professionalism if the shop is super sharp looking.

After that I need scent descriptions, I want to know what actually goes into the scent and then tell me what does that smell like? Get all poetic on my ass if need be :) Tell me what kind of person enjoys this scent.

Also, I like a price break on shipping. I will usually buy at least three soaps from a seller, two for me and something manly for the husband.

The first shop I bought from was BLSoaps. She offered a coffee scented soap called Kahlua Cream Shea Butter Soap that caught my eye, I added Wisdom facial soap and then Overdrive for the husband. The Kahlua Cream soap smelled delicious! Like bathing with a dessert, it had caramel overtones. It was smooth and creamy feeling too with great lather. The Wisdom soap has a great scent I can't quite describe, herbal and warm without smelling like medicine. I'm still using it exclusively to wash my face. The husband went through the Overdrive quickly, he uses soap much quicker than I do. He liked it a lot and I LOVED the smell, very manly but not overpowering. I would buy all three again.

Photos courtesy of BLSoaps

The second Etsy seller was BathArtisanSoaps. Still on a search for the perfect coffee scented soap made without coffee grounds (surprisingly hard to find!!) I bought Bean Juice and for the man, Blue Rush Spa Salt Bar. Bean Juice was a handsome, generous chunk of smooth soap, cured nice and hard, it lasted a long time. It had a great coffee dessert smell, very satisfying. The Blue Rush was a salt bar which creates a smooth, creamy lather, the salt is not exfoliating, it's not meant to be. The scent was sophisticated and masculine, I loved the way it smelled and so did Dell. The seller was very gracious and had great communication skills. Would buy both of those again!

Photos courtesy of BathArtisanSoaps

The third shop was SouthernVTSoap. I guess I was hungry when I was shopping because I bought Almond Cafe Mocha, Pumpkin Spice, and Chocolate Bliss! All three smell delicious and look gorgeous. I went through the Almond one first, hard not to take a bite out of these soaps, they smell like real food. I'm using the Pumpkin spice one now, I was worried it would smell too strong like a Yankee Candle, but it doesn't, it's subtle and warm, perfect. I'm saving the Chocolate one for next fall I think. I recommend this seller too!

Photos courtesy of southernvtsoap

I have been very happy with all my soap purchases so far. I'm glad these artisans took the time to perfect a craft I am smart enough to know I don't have the passion to master. My only problem now is deciding which soaps to buy next, too many great choices!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sisters We Three Consignment Shop

I have a shop on Etsy.com, the selling site for all things handmade (plus fab vintage and supplies). I love being a part of the handmade community, interacting with like-minded people who have the same job I do. Another perk of being on Etsy is being contacted for opportunities I might not hear about otherwise. No, not the chance to accept a bogus cashier's check from some overseas scammer's "shipping agent", I'm talking about legitimate invitations to apply for craft shows, and also possible consignment and wholesale gigs.

Late last year I got a nice email (called a "convo" in Etsy parlance) through my Etsy shop. Cathy was letting local people know that she and her two sisters were opening a consignment gallery in Newburyport, Massachusetts and would love it if I would apply to jury in. I wrote her back and we had a nice exchange through which I determined she knew what she was doing.

Newburyport is a seaside town north of Boston. It's a tourist destination with quaint streets, old brick buildings, stately homes, a harbor, and it's great for a day trip in the summertime as it is less than an hour from Lowell. Dell and I have been there several times, but it had been a few years and I thought I had heard where it was struggling retail-wise, maybe slipping in quality. Cathy said she'd been living there 20 years and she was bullish, so I decided to trust her.

I made an appointment to bring my goods in and on one sunny February Saturday, Dell drove us up there. We found the shop easily and as a bonus, it is conveniently located across from the municipal lot. Though the sun was out, it was chilly, snow and ice still pushed parked cars away from the curb, but man! That town was HOPPING! I mean wow. Every other shop seemed to be a super cute boutique or gallery, some looking pretty high end. We also saw independent coffee shops, restaurants, a yarn shop, a book store!

And the people walking down the street were hip-looking couples in their thirties with new additions to the family, older couples, ladies out in groups, handsome gay couples dressed so nice I felt a little frumpy, you maybe get the picture, Newburyport is thriving! Need I repeat that this was in February?? It made me very excited. But I still didn't know what to expect for the shop and I was nervous.

The sisters were set up in a newly painted gallery space. They were seated around a large wooden table, there were empty glass shelves pushed up against one side of the space. Though they were still working with another artist when we came in, they immediately said hello and did we need the bathroom or a bottle of water? Which put us at ease. They were so friendly and professional and their combined experiences; one had been a merchandiser for CVS, one had been a banker for 20 years, one a music teacher, seemed perfect for this task. Also, one sister makes mosaics and another makes jewelry, from that I knew they would understand artisans.

I started putting my goods on the table, I brought pincushions, necklaces, brooches and hair pins. They cooed and exclaimed and made me feel special. But mostly because they were being genuine and friendly. Jan looked up my Etsy shop right there on her laptop and saw my mom's cards and requested I submit those to the shop too. That sealed the deal, praise my mom, get a friend for life.

The deal is this: you rent space from them for a monthly fee based on the size of the space, you sign a year contract, they take 15% of each sale and that's it! You don't have to work there, you don't have to arrange your shelves, they are going to take care of all that. All you have to do is replenish your goods when the supplies run low.

I especially liked that they aren't going to shackle my goods to one shelf, but put that merchandising expertise to use in arranging the items throughout the store for maximum sales and exposure. Maybe they will have a theme and pull items from several artists that fit the theme. I love that! You never know if the spot you have is a good spot for selling and with their careful curation, I think everyone's items will be showcased in the best way.

I know consignment deals can go horribly awry. If you look it up in the Etsy Forums you'll see what I mean; shops taking your goods then going out of business, not paying on time, things getting damaged or stolen with no recourse. I've read it all.

So far my two experiences with consignment have not been brilliant, nothing lost but not much gained. This is more like a craft co-op that masquerades (in a good way) as a gallery. I am also in the process of starting another consignment relationship with a gallery that will follow the more standard route of 60/40 split and no monthly fees. I'll let you know how that one goes.

Meanwhile, Sisters We Three is opening in April and still seeking artists so if this sounds like something you are interested in, you can contact them at: sisterswethree@gmail.com