Welcome to our Spotlight, Jacki. Please tell us how your interest in all-natural beauty products began, as well as your soapmaking and bodycare business.
My chemically-sensitive body demanded the use of natural products, otherwise I chanced adverse reactions, rashes or worse—my throat swelling up due to noxious synthetic fragrances or dizzying effects from the fumes. But I’d been a long-time advocate for natural products, natural living. The living earth and all her creatures have always been important to me. On a whim, I purchased a handmade soap from my local natural foods store just because the listed ingredients seemed so intriguing; coconut oil, palm oil and almond oil all sounded so exotic and delicious, such curious ingredients for something so ordinary as soap. The first time I tried it, I was amazed. I had no idea that soap could be so mild and luscious at the same time! The lather was easy, creamy and left my skin feeling soft. I was definitely hooked.
The only problem was the scent—the maker had claimed “All Natural” on the front of the soap label, but upon closer inspection I realized that not all the ingredients were indeed natural. The scent was a synthetic, chemically formulated concoction that offended my sensitive nose and there were also some preservatives listed. I was so disappointed and disheartened. I was used to these feelings when it came to “natural” products. You know the story—as people have become more conscientious about what goes into their food and on their bodies and begun to look to natural alternatives, the big corporations tried to woo them back to the same old chemical-based products but with clever marketing and a “natural” slant. Or some companies tout their “natural” image while their products continue to pollute the planet with cheap and often dangerous synthetics just so they can maximize the all-mighty bottom line.
This time, however, I decided to do something about it. I had no idea then what that would come to mean for me and my life. My frustration led to a simple decision to make what I could not find elsewhere, intending only to make soap for my personal use and maybe as gifts for friends and family. I searched and researched everything I could find about the technique and history of soapmaking and the use of herbs and essential oils for healing. I gathered the exotic ingredients from far and wide, and set about making my very first batch of soap—a very nice cocoa butter and almond oil recipe which I had so proudly formulated myself—which turned out to be a total disaster! I had made a still unknown error and the stuff turned into nothing but a gooey, greasy mass of cocoa-scented lump. For some, this may have been a daunting prospect after all the effort I’d put into formulating the batch, but for stubborn me, it was just a challenge to do better.
My next batch, an oatmeal and honey soap, was a great success and soon became a top-requested soap from the family and friends I’d gotten hooked on my new product. Still, it was just a healthy hobby. After all, I was working toward my dream to become a documentary filmmaker and there was never any question that that was what I was destined to do. But what’s that quote by John Lennon? Life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.
Please share with us more about your early days of creating your soaps.
I had been immediately enchanted with the art and alchemy of making soap. With every new batch I made, a pound at a time, my fascination and sense of wonder never faded, but only grew richer and more colorful with each new discovery, each new success. I strove to make THE perfect soap. I formulated and reformulated, tweaking and adjusting and experimenting. From the start, it was a continuing education by trial and error—a process which very much continues today. Early on, I hit on a formula that produced all the properties I was working for: easy, abundant, creamy and thick lather, long-lasting, hard bars, mild enough for a baby’s sensitive skin, but richly scented with intoxicating blends of essential oils. That formula is still the base of nearly every WoodSprite Soap made today. I started getting requests for soap from people I’d never met; from friends of friends who had tried my soaps and discovered how it helped their skin. They were willing to pay me for it!
I enjoyed designing and hand-painting beautiful labels and tags for my soaps, and began writing “WoodSprite” on all my packaging, just for fun. I’ve always had a special affinity for trees and had read somewhere that Woodsprites are the tree spirits whose job it is not only to protect all the trees of the forest, but they’re also charged with the task of painting the brilliant colors of the leaves in autumn. I liked the idea of these little spirits as protectors and facilitators of change…Bringers of Transformation. Through my own little gifts of pampering, I could educate people about the benefits of natural, ecologically-sustainable products. People seemed to love the name, too. Cool, I thought. Now my hobby can pay for itself. But I’m still a filmmaker, and that’s what I’m meant to do. Right? Soon, I was selling soap on set, while I was supposed to be working as a filmmaker. My creative spirit kept dreaming up new soaps for me to design, so I happily obliged. My creative spirit was becoming more and more fanciful, whispering new ideas in my ear while I ate, while I slept, while I brushed my teeth.
As I indulged my creative spirit, my collection of essential oils was growing, and my spare room was turning into an herbal apothecary and I continued to accumulate new and exciting botanicals, extracts and exotic oils and butters. I had begun to sell my concoctions at art fairs and folk festivals, and soon it became too hard to walk the two divergent paths I’d been trying to follow. As much as I love filmmaking, soapmaking was taking over. And it was bringing income. I decided to allow this new passion to take me where it wanted to go, and set my love of filmmaking aside temporarily so I could ride out the rising wave of momentum that soapmaking had formed.
That was almost five years ago.
Where is your company at today?
Today, WoodSprite is still a growing company, and we’ve really picked up quite a loyal following. I still design all of our products, but have enlisted the help and talents of a few friends and family members along the way, to help me with production and order fulfillment. Soapmaking itself has become quite a popular hobby-turned-home-business for a great many people, and today there are so many choices it is downright confusing. I wasn’t sure we could stand out from the crowd. But I think that my stubborn dedication to making the very best, the purest, the most effective soaps and bodycare products available has been wholly worthwhile. We strive to be the standard by which the competition is measured. Quality definitely sells itself. But I think that what our customers appreciate most is the commitment to our ideals; it is the heart of WoodSprite and it is what sets us apart from others. All of our products are 100% natural, and now we continue to expand our use of organically grown ingredients. We are ardently supportive of local and worldwide grassroots efforts to protect our fragile planet, while educating the public about the importance of sustainable consumerism. I am now supplying spas and boutiques and stores around the world, as organic and natural products become increasingly more popular.
I am proud of our products and the philosophy which created them. I am proud of myself, of the surprises I’ve discovered about me along the way. And I am excited to see how far my little company has come. And I am looking forward to seeing how high we can set the bar, and how far we can go.
You mentioned that you are (were?) a filmaker. Please share with us what you have done in this area, and what future plans you have in filmaking.
I haven’t worked on anything much that anyone has heard of…I worked on several independent films in Michigan, the most successful being “Stardust”, “Hatred of a Minute” and “Judicial Consent”. Most of the work available in the Detroit area is having to do with cars, of course, so I worked on an endless line of car commercials and industrials, which was not rewarding and was truly the antithesis to the things I care most about in the world. I had gotten into film and television at the tender age of 19, hoping to make the world a better place through documentary films. I did eventually form my own production company in 1998 and traveled to Montana with a crew of four other people to produce my first documentary, Where the Buffalo Roam, about the battle over the fate of the world’s last and largest wild buffalo herd in Yellowstone National Park. My crew and I interviewed people on both sides of the war, including the then-governor of Montana, Marc Racicot, who later became George Bush’s campaign manager for the 2004 election. We shot over 20 hours of video footage and 12,000 feet of 16mm film footage, and had the glorious experience of encountering the wild bison on the very land they had previously roamed for roughly 60 million years. Unfortunately, I started making soap before I finished editing the film—and the soap business quickly took over my life! I hope to get WoodSprite Natural Body to fly on its own in the next year or two, so that I can finish my film and perhaps work on other occasional film projects I’ve had in the works. Interestingly, the bison’s plight is still raging in the West, and the film is still just as relevant and timely as ever.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, which one of your beautiful soaps would you like to stranded with?
That’s like asking me to choose among my children! It’s like SOAPie’s Choice! Arrrrrgh! Hmmmm….one, just one…oh, jeez. This is harder than you think. I would have to say, just because it’s the most expensive and luxurious soap I make, the Amber Earth. It’s like bathing in velvet, and if you must be stranded on an island, you may as well be stranded in style, no?
What changes have you seen in the field of all-natural beauty care since you started making your soaps?
I’m happy to see more choices in the natural beauty market than were available when I started making my own products. It was a severe lack of choices which prompted the birth of my company in the first place. I am still a bit of a stickler and a purist, however, and still find that truly 100% natural choices (which meet MY personal definition of natural) are rather few and far between. Nonetheless, I am glad that demand for such products continues to grow, and likewise, that the demand is being heeded and acknowledged by manufacturers. I’m especially pleased to see more Certified Organic ingredients available to the beauty manufacturer, because I believe this is the best route for a sustainable planet as well as the finest quality goods.
What advice would you give to someone that is just starting off in their own all-natural beauty business?
Do a business plan. Do the footwork, the homework, the research. My company began as a mere hobby and it has undergone several evolvements and incarnations since I made my first batch of soap. If I’d known I was going to have a growing business and selling my products around the world, I would have liked to have given myself better tools and knowledge in order to make better choices along the way. That said, I am also a highly disorganized individual and I feel my way through life almost entirely intuitively. Every aspect of my business is run this way and it is those instincts which have gotten me this far. So, do a business plan, but follow your gut. I am a firm believer in following one’s instincts. How’s that for divergent answers?
Are there any books or teachers that have helped you with your soapmaking that you'd like to recommend?
I own just about every book on soapmaking that has ever been written, but the only one I recommend is Susan Miller Cavitch’s Soapmaker’s Companion. I believe it is the most comprehensive volume on natural soapmaking and its many ingredients and processes available, and I like that it teaches the reader to think creatively, critically, and allows one the information one needs to formulate a totally original recipe, if one so chooses. I hate following (other people’s) recipes—in fact, I believe I may have some genetic predisposition which renders recipes completely useless to me because I cannot seem to follow one to save my life. I always have to “tinker” with formulas and I like that this book gave me the information I needed to take off in my own direction.