National Soapmaking Day

Last Sunday in September

Lynnel Olson, Featured Soapmaker for 2021

Image of Lynnel Olson, the Featured Soapmaker for National Soapmaking Day 2021.

Lynnel Olson owns Oregon Soap Shoppe in Oregon, Illinois

What are your first memories of making soap?
My memory of the first time I made soap was—now, looking back—pretty much a disaster! I wanted to see if I could actually do it and, of course this was prior to the World Wide Web, so it was difficult to find information but I did have a set of encyclopedias. I tried to find as much as possible to read on it, and away I went and stirred and stood and stirred and stirred. The soap was very warm and I thought, "Perhaps if it was cool, it would set up faster?" and so I set it out in a snowbank. Every few minutes I'd run outside and give it another little spin with my wooden spoon! Well, it finally turned out, but it was not very good.

What inspired you to begin soapmaking?
I don't know if it was inspiration, or determination, or just being inquisitive that this long adventure of saponification began. I had worked with burn patients and wound care as a nurse. In the early '80s, I eloped and, after a few years, it was necessary for my husband to leave his engineering job and for me to leave my nursing job to go help his ailing father milk cows. Well, I had been a Girl Scout as a young girl, and our family usually went tent camping in a waxed canvas tent. We would go fishing every weekend and pick berries, as it helped with my mom and dad's family food budget. So, I figured I was industrial enough that I could learn this "cow milking thing." Over the years I'd been learning animal husbandry, growing as much produce as we possibly could, canning fruits, vegetables, jams, jellies, soups, and stews, pickling pickles and relish, mending overalls, hanging clothes on the line in the winter, and chopping wood to keep our house warm with a woodburning furnace… all while I was pregnant with our first child. One thing I had not tried as a "farm wife" was making our own soap!

How did you learn to make soap?
Learning to make soap was quite an experience, as there was not any information available. So, I decided to buy small bottles of different oils at the grocery store, one every week, and would write to the oil company and ask questions. Such as, "Are there any skin vitamins left in your oil once it has saponified into soap? How much sodium hydroxide is necessary to saponify the oil? How much water did I need?" I would patiently wait for a snail mail to arrive and I would set forth on another trial and error. So, that is how I learned how to make soap—basically from trial and error.

How do you feel when you make soap?
When making soap, how do I feel? Well, in the early years, it was just for fun and to see if I could do it, and then it became a determination that I was going to make the best soap possible because it would save us money, eventually. It was satisfactory (after waiting 30 days to try a bar out) and it was lovely! I made batch after batch, unscented. I tried to scent a batch with powdered cinnamon, that was hilarious—there was so much cinnamon! It was the most abrasive soap ever and hardly had any scent of cinnamon at all. I tried butter, goat milk, cow milk, and every herb imaginable. Now, as life took twists and unexpected turns, soaping is my only income. It is rewarding, exhausting, stressful, and calming! A sense of some sort of accomplishment.

What does soapmaking mean to you?
Making soap, the art of saponification, what does it mean to me? Selling soaps and at craft shows in the early days, there was no one else was selling handmade soap—or very few people were. Never, in 1 million years, did I think I would be doing this and making this much soap at 64 years old! Making and selling soap means I can pay my bills. Making soap and studying are passions. Michelangelo said, in his 87th year, "ancora imparo," ("I am still learning"). It is so much easier to learn these days, with the Internet and many books written about making soap. I had always thought one day I would write a book, but I'll have to choose that in my free time. It is important for people to be very choosy regarding their education. Please, research the source of where your information is obtained and where you take classes from, making sure they are reputable. I think it was 1991 when I took a correspondence course from the UK with Martin Wyatt. He was the first one I could find anywhere that gave direction to essential oils, the plant material, and etc. Later on, I took Internet courses with Australian College of Healthcare Science. Always learn your craft well if you intend on sharing your product with others. Essential oils can be dangerous if not used properly and can have detrimental effects as well as glorious. So, perhaps after this long paragraph in answer to your question, what does soapmaking mean to me?, not only is it an art of saponification and it feels like magic, but it is a huge responsibility. So, making soap is a responsibility to my customers, my family, and to myself, to study and learn what each oil is all about and what it does for the skin, so I can help people as much as possible.

Can you compare soapmaking to anything else to help people relate to the experience?
Everything we do in life has a learning curve, so if you learn how to fish and go fishing you learn everything about fish. Fishing can be considered an art! What type of bait to use? Do you cast? Do you fly fish? Do you fish off the bridge with a string and a safety pin? Do you go out on a small boat or a fancy boat? That is one example. Are you going to grow a garden? You learn all about the soil; you learn how to enrich the soil the best you can, organically with coffee grounds, egg shells, and banana peels. Perhaps you will have a compost pile. Perhaps sheet composting will be your style. You will learn all about the types of vegetables you want to grow for your area. Then comes the harvest. Do you can? Do you freeze? Do you eat fresh? What to do? The choices are so many. The list goes on and on with so many different things in life. Life is just like soapmaking. There are so many things to learn and enjoy. So, how do I compare soapmaking to relate it to someone else? It’s just about anything you want to do and do it well; you learn everything there is to do about it; you read, study, ask questions, and find people who are not necessarily experts but have life experience.

What are your fondest memories of soapmaking?
One of my fondest memories of the soapmaking experience was in the early days, probably 1992. It was early in September, the kids were just going back to school, there were about 5 hours before they came home on the bus. My girlfriend, Lori (her kids were on the bus also, as our kids were the "country kids"), said, "Hey! Let's drive into where my dad lives and go to that food supply place to see if we can find you some coconut oil," because she was purchasing 50-pound bags of flour to make bread. We both called our husbands at work on our land lines to let them know we were driving to Chicago (about an hour and a half drive) in one of our beat-up pickup trucks! Ha, ha, no cell phones, no Google maps, no nothing, just off we go! Mike Lawson was very kind to us and laughed when we wanted to buy a 50-pound container of coconut oil, olive oil, and a 50-pound bag of flour! He gave us a list of food supplies he had available, in case we needed anything else. Holy smokes, I thought I had enough coconut and olive oils for the rest of my life! It was a very adventuresome day for us girls. We made it back in time, before the kids got home from school! It is very difficult to pin down some of these moments in time, as I have been making soap for 32 years and there are so many fond memories!

Is there a particular soapmaking experience you'd like to share from your past soapmaking history?
The experience of soapmaking has been a lifelong journey of learning, growing, and meeting so many fabulous people. Life is an adventure, it's not about competition, it's about doing the best you possibly can. My dad told me, when I started to sell some soap, "Give your customers more than what they expect!" This was the morning of my first real craft show. The night before, my brother came to our house and very proudly proclaimed, "I named your business for you!" I didn't even think I had a business. He told me, "I signed you up for the craft show. I made you a banner. Your business is called 'Handcrafted Country Soaps.' You live out in the country and you handcraft your soap, so that's your [business] name!" The banner cost my brother $50, holy smokes! I did not want to go to the craft show, but now my brother had invested $50 of his own money in me. So, I said, "OK," with a pit in my stomach, "that's great. How are we going to package the soaps?" We didn't even have anything labeled. How were people going to know what's what? They were just in shoeboxes! So, we used brown paper sacks from the grocery store; we cut skinny strips and wrote the names with marker pen and taped them to each bar of soap. That's all it said on the label was the name of the soap: no ingredients, no nothing on the back of the label. My brother, Randy, wrote, "If you need more soap, call Lynnel 234-2181 or Randy 226-0617." Then, I got the kids brown lunch sacks out of the cupboard and I had some raffia from gift wrapping, so, we were going to use the lunch bags to put customer soap in and tie it shut with a raffia bow because we thought it would look cute. A few years before, I had accepted the Lord as my personal savior. It is important to share the word. So, I wrote out a small testimonial that night and made copies in the morning on the way to the craft show. My brother told me, "No one will want to buy soap after you put that 'Jesus stuff' in." I didn't really care, it was my job to share the word and it was up to God to win the hearts. Well, 32 years later, the same testimonial still goes in every customer's package: "God is good." That day, we made a little over $100 and we sold the soap at four bars for $10. I tried to pay my brother back the $50 for the sign and he would have none of it. He said, "No, I’m not taking your money. You invest that, buy more oils."

I no longer do craft shows. No more hauling soap in my five-speed, Ford F150, open-bed, pickup truck with tarps strapped down. I let my fingers do the walking and order oils from all around the world. Sometimes, I do drive into Mike Lawson's new location, which is much easier and much nicer to pick up oils, and maybe get to say, "Hello" to him. I have rented the shop for over 18 years. Prior to that, I was at a smaller location for four years but it was too small and I could not make soap there. I don't know long I will continue to make soap. Would I like to retire? Would I like to have some days off? Well, absolutely. But when customers ask me how long I will continue to make soap and, "Who is going to take over for me?" I don't know, it's up to the Lord and as far as I know I will make soap until He takes me home, whenever that day comes. Whatever I do, I do for the glory of God.

Image of Lynnel Olson's soap on the shelves of her soap shop in Oregon, Illinois.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Well, soapmakers unite! For the pandemic has hit the world very hard! We were very fortunate our city deemed the shop essential in the very beginning. We no longer have a Facebook page because Facebook disabled our page completely after we posted proper handwashing techniques and with some [detailed] explanation [and instruction]. Remember when I talked about "learning everything there is to know about your craft?"? There is quite a bit of science to soapmaking; there is quite a bit of science to soap. When I worked as a nurse in the hospital, every doctor, nurse, visitor, and patient used the same little white bar of soap at the patient sink, as they entered and left the room. There was no hand sanitizer; there was no liquid soap. Bacteria does not grow on soap. Everyone can use the same bar of soap without fear. What we told people on our Facebook page follows.

This is for your safety. Do not trust the hand sanitizers. This is not about our soap, this is about bar soap, use any bar soap! Support any of your local soapmakers. My explanation is easy: Hand sanitizers do not dissolve lipids. Contagious viruses are surrounded by lipids. Lipids are fats. Alcohol does not dissolve fat. A liquid soap will dissolve a fat but it does take three minutes. Who does a three-minute handwashing? Surgeons. When we make bar soap with our oils, that very special hydrophilic molecule is formed, it is fat loving and water loving, all in one molecule. Look it up. Study it. It is fascinating. Therefore, bar soap dissolves the lipid that surrounds the contagion, causing the contagion to completely fall apart. It doesn't die because it's not alive; it falls apart. All in a 20-second hand wash. Do not touch your eyes and your nose unless your hands are clean, but to be sure, I would prefer to use a Kleenex or the inside of my own shirt. I understand there is so much about the pandemic that is extremely controversial and scary. The bottom line is: protect yourself and your family and use bar soap and do not trust the hand sanitizers. Hand sanitizers only destroy bacteria. We have been giving all of our customers a small travel bar (as we call it). It is about a fourth of a bar of our soap, so, about an ounce-and-a-half, depending upon the age of the soap, because of course the longer at ages the less it weighs. We tell customers to set it on the car consul. Customers can set it on an upside down coffee cup lid from McDonald's, or a yogurt lid, or anything similar. Don't keep it closed in tightened plastic. Let it set there to catch the drips. Keep a jug of water with you. In the winter, we carry a thermos of warm water and a hand towel, and after we get gas in the car go to the grocery store (or wherever), we hold our hands out the side of the car door. Of course, if it's nice weather, we stand outside the car if we are in a safe location and wash, rinse, and dry our hands. I carry an extra old washcloth or paper towels and get it wet and soap it up and I do the steering wheel, the door handle, the key fob, whatever we touched before we could wash our hands. It's simple; it's easy; it's effective. It only takes an extra minute. It's not just COVID-19 we are concerned about, or the Delta, every contagious virus has a lipid layer around it, whether it is viral pneumonia, strep throat, any other flu, plus it will keep your hands clean and soft; it feels so much better. So, a little postscript to this: Yes, it is a lot of soap to give away. It is not a tax deduction at all because I already took my deduction when I purchased my oils; our labor does not count. So, it is just a gift to keep customers well, and I'm giving them more than they expect.

Image of the Featured Soapmaker certificate awarded to Lynnel Olson.

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