Alison Part 1: Pioneering handmade soapmaking in tropical Western Australia

When I first came into contact with Alison, handmade soapmaking as a business was virtually unheard of in Australia. We are talking of the last millennium here: this was when, with the exception of maybe one other well-established business, Aussie handmade soap was only available at a few specialised craft markets, where it was offered for sale by “hobby crafters” —people who sell what they make, and make what they sell more for fun, than for recouping expenses or making some statement, and certainly do not need to make a living from their hobby.

So I felt it was a huge privilege for me to shake hands, no matter whether in virtual reality, with someone who was working full time and employing staff to produce handmade soap! And on top of that, someone who could be looked up to as a powerful positive example of a successful ethical business, where skin-friendliness and light footprint came long before profit or productivity.

Alison Southern and her Hidden Valley Handcrafts have been operating in Broome, in the Kimberly region of Western Australia and maybe the remotest of all Australian destinations, since 1995. Born from Alison’s desire to “do a small thing really well”, Hidden Valley Handcrafts has grown organically from her kitchen to a business supporting 7 part timers and 3 family members, including Ali’s partner, Smokey aka Mr Fixit. Since 2004, having grown way too big for their home, the business has moved to a remodelled shed, where it spreads across a shopfront, a “Luscious Ladies’ Lab”, a computer nerve centre for mail orders, and a big soap kitchen.

Soapmaker’s prayer:

Let this soap cleanse away fear, let love be here.

 

Today Alison, Smokey & friends service a local Broome market, the tourism market from Easter to Christmas, wholesale orders to local boutique hotels and B&Bs, and mail orders all over Australia. They also stand in first line to support environmental and sustainability movements for the unselfish benefit of all the world: where, unlike in the famous forest and tree metaphor, The World is comprehended both as a whole, and as a diversity of individuals.

1. Ali, your brochure states that you started making soap when your youngest son went to school, as a way to earn an income from home. Where did you get the idea of making soap? Were you already familiar with handmade soap, and if so, how did you get to know of it?

Well, I had given up smoking after 25 years of puffing away, and my nose had recently woken up and fallen in love with pure essential oils, the aromatic essences of plants. Do you know, I can hardly remember what brought me to SOAP  –  I think that the idea “soap” just kept popping into my head, along with “how can I use these gorgeous essential oils in everyday life?” However, a significant turning point came from a friend at the newly formed Broome Courthouse Markets, around 1994. She had tried making and selling a variety of products including some very rough and skanky looking soap. She was amazed that it sold so well, but wasn’t interested in pursuing soapmaking – it was “too much like cooking”! That was enough market research for me!

Having been a librarian, I was confident about finding information in those pre-internet days. But I could find only 1 book – that English classic by Ann Bramson – Soap, with pioneering but fairly inadequate information, and just 4 recipes. Also, an issue of Grass Roots or perhaps Earth Garden magazine included a veggie soap recipe – again, not a very good one. This was my beginning. The fact that I’d always had sensitive skin which reacted to many commercial soaps and skin care products was a bonus – a perfect test bunny for my new creations!

However, an aromatherapist told me there was no way I could successfully incorporate pure essential oils in hand made soap – this would make them far too expensive. Luckily I ignored her advice!

2. What did appeal to you most? How was your impact with your very first batch of soap, and do you remember what it was?

I just wanted to MAKE something nice I could sell, and work from home, being here for the kids after school. Being a perfectionist, Ann Bramson’s recipes were just not good enough for me, and the first batches were dreadful and mostly un-memorable.  But I just experimented, and over about 6 months figured out how to make consistently reasonable soap. An early decision was to make only vegetable soap. Following Bramson, I got the butcher to save us the tallow – the beef fat around the kidneys, and I rendered this up. “Ooh yuk” said the kids, “what’s that awful smell?”  So that was the end of animal fats for us. “Citrus Fresh” was one of the first soaps I sold. But actually the citrus oils don’t hold well in cold process soap – perhaps lime is the best. They need to be boosted with other lemony oils like lemongrass, lemon & honey myrtle, or may chang (litsea cupeba), and a bit of bass, like clove. I remember selling perhaps 4 kinds of soaps at my first (scary) market stall. Fellow marketeers were encouraging, and that first market stall brought in just over $100. I was thrilled!

A big step forward for me was dreaming up the ways I could use soap to express love for landscape or values, rather than just description, like “Lavender & Rosemary”. No, I moved slowly to “Full Moon Rising” and “Bliss” or “Kimberley Wet Season”. Nobody else I knew seemed to do this at the time.

3. How did soapmaking change your life? How does it suit your lifestyle and life guiding principles?

You are right – soapmaking changed my life! It gave my life back to me as an expression of me. It gave me an income working from home where I wanted to be while the children grew, not out working full time for somebody else! It allowed me to make my own decisions and mistakes, not do silly things I didn’t believe in for other people. My business grew the way I chose it to, though sometimes back there it was a bit more like being dragged along by the tail of the tiger than riding on its back!

We live a few kilometres out of town on a 3 1/4 acre block, in an originally hand made house (we literally made it with our hands, with poured earth & cement, a little like rammed earth but we couldn’t afford the ramming machine so we used cement.) And we back onto the bush – a rare monsoonal vine thicket area full of amazing plants and ancient shell middens. So part of the soapmaking journey has been about a different but related alchemy – creating a place and a supportive lifestyle for ourselves and our family.

4. Choose three words that describe your personality as a soap/toiletry maker:

Perfectionist. Expressive/artistic. Feistily independent. Pioneering. Socially and spiritually oriented. Did you ask for THREE only??????

Alison’s interview continues with Part 2: Perfecting handmade soap… when few knew how to do it!

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