Four generations of soap making
Our story began on the Albertan prairies, where my great-grandmother taught my mom how to make soap. These proved to be useful lessons. Later, as a young adult, Mom moved to Salt Spring Island. It was 1973. She and Dad wanted to escape the trappings of the city and corporate life.
Mom and Dad were hippies and weren’t satisfied with the status quo. For example, she didn’t like the chemicals and additives found in everyday soaps. Being an industrious person, with some knowledge of soap making, she decided to make her own—in her kitchen. At first, the soap was just for us to use. It didn’t take long for the word to catch on.
Burnt spoons and contraptions
Soapmaking isn’t easy. It took a lot of experiments and work to get our recipes right. Mom ruined a lot of wood spoons along the way, and even invented new tools to do the job. She salvaged a bakery power mixer for making soap. She used one of those old spotted enable washing machine drums (with a hole and tap in the bottom) to make soap in. She made a wire cutter frame to cut soap.
Mom grew a lot of the ingredients she used. She infused essential oils and scents from plants out of our garden. She sliced oranges and dried them over the wood stove for use in certain products. Mom wanted her company to, “be environmentally conscious, stay small, and support the community.” And she put everything into making this so.
Suits, weirdos, and foolishness
The odds were stacked against her. Back then, business was a big kids’ game, and cottage business weren’t taken seriously. Folks often told my mom what she couldn’t do, but she did it anyway. Mom’s a tenacious person who doesn’t back down easily. Plus, she had some experience in the corporate world. She had seen how they worked and used this knowledge to her advantage. In turn, she created an actual business within the hippie movement. (At the time, there was only one other soap maker in the province.)
This might sound like a paradox and it probably is. Part of this is because of the island we live and work on. Our culture here is weird and diverse. This island is home to business people who’ve made billions. Meanwhile, there’s a guy who walks around town in his bare feet, with a drum—even in winter. The island has many unique characters and stories. Some of the most foolish residents here start their own businesses. They soon learn how tricky it is to do so, as everything needs to travel to and from the mainland by boat.
In spite of all that worked against her, Mom’s natural soaps started to attract a following. She found interest at craft shows and at the Salt Spring Saturday Market. Later, this extended to hundreds of shops around the country. In time, she exported soap to Japan, introduced skin care options, and opened her own retail shops.
Over time, Saltspring Soapworks became more like a business. Mom moved from her workspace in the kitchen to the garage. Later, she moved her setup to the barn. Currently, we’re in a sort of boring cinder-block building. There’s nothing particularly corporate about us, but we realized that systems and order would help us ensure consistent quality and purity in our products. Plus, we’ve learned ways to make this hard work a little easier—and I’m grateful for that.
Old values; new directions
Words like “handmade” and “artisan” get thrown around a lot, these days. In fact, we get a little sick of it. Seems like all someone needs to do is put a filter on their photos, and they look like the real deal. For us, though, nothing has been that easy. It’s been a long haul of working things out the hard way—just so we can produce good, natural, handmade products.
In 2012, Mom passed Saltspring soapworks on to me and my wife Amber. After many years of soap making, she wanted to do different things. However, she insisted the company stay in the family. This was a natural fit for us. We’d been working in the business for over 20 years, and wanted to bring some of our own ideas to the operation.
Small is beautiful
There are a lot of ways a company can grow. Some pursue growth at any cost. For us, though, it needs to be done the right way. We want to grow slowly, in a way that helps us make better products. So, we’re working to standardize systems while staying true to the original Saltspring Soapworks vision. You’ll never find our products at Costco—because that’s just not what we’re about.
I’m Gary. Together with my wife, Amber, and son, Owen, we carry on the Saltspring Soapworks tradition. We still make our soaps and skincare products, here on beautiful Salt Spring Island. We formulate, source, mix, and package our products by hand. And we continue to use good ingredients that are easy on the environment—just like Mom did! Thanks for believing in us and for being a part of our story.