It's been a busy year

August is almost gone, that leaves just 4 months left of the year to go. Usually these are the four busiest months and somehow I can't quite fathom how they can be more busy than the first 8 were.

We decided to really do a bunch this year and in between all the craft shows, the orders to mail, the soap (and other stuff) to make, the family also accomplished a bunch of things around the homestead. We finished off our attic and added some much needed insulation. The attic isn't a livable space, it isn't like it is painted or anything spiffy, but the upper region (the attic is split into two levels) now has a floor and lights, and can cold my many displays and bins of packing materials. It is clean, we added a fan that helps evacuate the hot air during the summer, and we organized everything as well.

The fence is almost complete. We have been wanting a fence since we moved in many years ago. I love out house, but the lot is surrounded by street on three sides so you always felt like there was no privacy. The side yard is done, the back yard is finished, there is just the other side that needs to be picketed in. The boys have been working on it diligently every weekend for at least a month now and they probably have three weekends left to go before its done.

Our closets were organized. It was the best money I have ever spent to have a company come in and design a shelf system for our closets. Everything has a place, they have almost doubled capacity just through the efficient use of space, and new doors have made everything accessible. It is actually a pleasure looking for shoes and belts now rather than going through an endless number of boxes on the floor of my closet.

And we have redesigned the spare bedroom into a spare room/craft room. There are two cabinets filled with yarn and books, and a third small one filled with other supplies. A new TV and a working DVD player with Netflix access have rounded out the room. Now our guests can enjoy some entertainment and I can sit and craft when no one else is sleeping there. This is especially important since I am not only knitting as a hobby now, but beginning to weave and to practice bobbin lace as well. My little corner of the living room was getting far too crowded. This has also resulted in my cleaning out of our bookshelves. I have gotten rid of about 10 bankers boxes full of books, all donated to a local charity. It has lightened things up around here for sure.

Then on the business side I finished out the web site finally. I am sure there are still some typos and I know I will need to make changes and additions come January, but the day to day upkeep is minimal, it is simple but functional, and I have seen an increase in orders since I got it all finished so it is doing what it is supposed to do. I am also starting some "sister sites" whee I can list my products in other places, I am hoping that this increases my visibility and my orders through them as well.

The workshop is in the process of being cleaned out. I have years and years worth of unused supplies. Some things I got just for a special project, some are left overs from items I made in the past. I am clearing them all out, getting them up in E Bay and giving myself room expand. I need room so I can start making new and different products and have the space to store them all!

So I was going to take this time and reflect on my 2013 resolutions and see what I have accomplished and what I could still work on. However, after looking at this list, I am pretty proud of what the family has accomplished this year so far. I know there will be much more to come in the next four months!


Why do craft shows charge an admission fee?

I have to admit I ask myself this all the time.

The internet is amazingly empty of good reasons why a show should or shouldn't charge an admission fee. Here are a few things I found, and a few hypothesis of my own.

1) To create the illusion of prestige. Yep. Seriously. To make you think that whatever is inside is so good and so exclusive that you need to pay for the privilege to spend more money once inside. There is an area of thought that believes that the physical act of paying an entrance fee changes our perception of the goods inside so much that we are willing to pay a higher price for them than if they were exhibited at a free event.

2) To raise money for charity. Often the entrance fee goes all or in part to a local charity. Sometimes the entrance fee is lowered or eliminated with a donation (like a canned good) that will go to a local food bank. Always check and see if this is 1) a cause you ultimately support and 2) what percentage of the fee is actually making it to the charity. Because it is hard for me to trust that money actually makes it where it is supposed to, I always bring things (like clothes or canned goods) when I have the opportunity. I believe they are much more likely to make it to where they are supposed to in the end.

3) To support the artists. These shows are expensive to do. Insurance is astronomical, rent for buildings or parks is skyrocketing, advertising costs more and more, infrastructure (like garbage cans & lights) must be paid for, and musicians/entertainment also get their fair share.  Rather than have high fees for the artists to attend, an entrance fee is used to make up the difference between what they pay, and what is needed to provide a good, safe, and fun environment for the show to take place in.

4) To make money. There always will be those places that cover the aforementioned costs with a high artisan fee. They make sure they break even before the show even begins. The entrance fee is their income, their pay for all the hard work they have put into the event. If they work hard and draw a big crowd, then they get a great payday. If they work hard and draw a big crowd, most likely the artisans will have a big payday as well, sales should reflect the gate attendance.

Often these reasons are intertwined. It can be difficult to decide if you want to pay and entrance fee into a show or not. Check the events web site for coupons, ask your friends if they have gone before, check with artisans you know who are exhibiting there and look for candid advice.

I also have to ask myself if I should participate in shows that charge a fee, at all, some of the time, or never. That is a question for another time...


Size doesn't matter...

At least when it comes to soap.

I get a kick out of it when I overhear "but the other bars are bigger" in reference to other soapmakers I am with at a show. Why? Because when it comes down to it, unless a bar is unusually big, how long a bar lasts has more to do with the recipe, the process used to make it, and how long it's cured than the overall size of the bar.

Lets start with the recipe. Each oil used to produce a bar of soap contains a different set of fatty acids. These fatty acids, when saponified, bring a certain set of characteristics to the final product. The softer the final bar, the quicker it will melt when used. Almond and apricot both produce a soft bar, where palm and coconut make for a very hard bar of soap. For me, developing a recipe is a balance of making a hard bar of soap, that still remains conditioning to the skin. I want my customers to get their money's worth from very bar, but not sacrifice overall quality in the process. 

There are three main ways soap is made: cold process, hot process, and hand milled (sometimes called rebatched). In cold process the oils are combined with the alkali at a low temperature, usually about 110 degrees, stirred vigorously usually with an immersion blender, and left to finish saponification over three days or more. 

With hot process, the oils and alkali are combined and then cooked over a much higher heat. Here the saponification takes places much more quickly, and the soap can be ready to use in hours rather than days.

Hand milled soaps (like I make) typically start with an unscented cold processed soap that is milled down to look a lot like mozzarella cheese, and remelted. This remelting process helps reduce the amount of air in the soap, allows you to add fragrances and colors when the total soap pH is at its lowest, and aligns the molecules in a way that ends with a very hard bar of soap. Basically making the soap twice allows me to use a very conditioning recipe, that would be too soft if made only using a cold process method, but then gain hardness through the hand milling process. 

Finally how long a soap is cured will greatly influence how long a soap will last with use. When I make a batch of unscented soap, I have to make a choice on how much water to use in the recipe. In mine, I can use anywhere from 64 to 96 ounces of water. The more water I use, the softer the initial bar, and the more shrinkage as the bars cure. Think of beef jerky, you can start with a full pound of meat, but a few hours in the dehydrator leaves you with just 3 or 4 ounces of jerky at the end. Soap is similar. Over time, almost all the water will eventually cure out of the bar, ultimately changing the shape of the bar over time. All my soaps are cured for at least 4 weeks, and typically closer to 8, in a room that is constantly under dehumidification. They have lost at least 30% of their water before they make it to your home and they continue to loose it until you start using the bar. This is why the bars often look cupped, they are changing shape as they dry. Unfortunately, using a high percentage of water in a recipe can be an easy way to increase a bars weight and to keep it looking pretty over a longer period of time. A heavy bar, depending on how it is made, can be as much soap as my smaller bars, just have more water in them.

As you can see, choosing a bar of soap is much more complex then just looking at the overall size or weight of the bar.