14 July 2015

Celebrating the Independent Spirit - Ceri Aitman

As July is Independent Retailer Month in UK, we thought it would be a great opportunity to interview a few of the independent artisans whose products we are proud to stock, to give you greater insight of their work and ethos. In a world of mass produced items (necessary though they are) it's very special to be able to enjoy something handmade, even more so if it's been made just for you.

Oakwood Soaperie Facebook cover photo

We are beginning with Oakwood Soaperie, handmade soaps and skincare products by Ceri (pronounced Kerry) Aitman. Her workshop is housed in the stable block on the very attractive National Trust Gibside Estate just outside Gateshead. We have been stocking Ceri's gorgeous soaps and bath truffles for the past two years. We began by asking her when she started soap making for a living and whether it had been born out of a hobby.

Oakwood Soaperie's Gibside garden plot
A glimpse of Ceri tending the botanicals she grows in her garden plot on the Gibside Estate.
I started ‘serious’ soap-making for a living back in October 2010. It was just part time to begin with, but for the last 3 years, has been my full time occupation. It all started out as an obsession with natural ingredients, and finding ways to use raw honey and beeswax from my dad’s native dark bees. After a long time researching, reading and experimenting making various other products, I finally decided to give real soap-making a proper go, and haven’t looked back since.

Ceri's soaps are made by what is known as the cold process; we asked why this is so special?
Myrtle & Lavender Soap - 2015 limited edition
‘Cold Process Soap-making’ is the traditional way to make real soap, using oils and fats, combined with an alkali solution to create natural soap and glycerine, this is a saponification reaction and only true soap can be made this way. Originally, waste animal fats and ashes would be heated together and the saponification reaction would begin. This, however, would leave a pretty harsh, raw and smelly soap. These days the process is a lot more refined with each soap-maker creating their own formula of plant oils and butters with an alkali solution, and natural additives for colour, texture and smell. I prefer to use the cold process method in all my soaps as the limited amount of heat used in the process preserves the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals in the oils and other natural ingredients to feed and nourish the skin with goodness.
How important is only using pure, natural ingredients in your products?
Gone Adventuring soap by Oakwood Soaperie
Gone Adventuring Soap - cool, clean, crisp tang from eucalyptus, tea tree and earthy cedar wood.
To me, it’s crucial. I’ve strayed from the path every now and again with colours, fragrance oils and artificial bubbling ingredients, but I’m proud to say that as of late summer, all the products in my range will be 100% natural and pure, using high quality, aromatherapy grade essential oils, lots of organically grown botanicals, pure plant oils and rich butters.
Ceri went on to tell us how long it takes to create a new soap fragrance.
Rose Madder Soap by Oakwood Soaperie
Rose Madder - Heady and floral rose geranium with a spike of black pepper.
I tend to develop a few together, as it takes time to choose, design, blend, test and register any new products. From start to finish, it can be anything up to a couple of months, as I fit it in between general making and events, processing orders, and lots of wrapping.
Ceri makes a wide range of products (soap, truffles, melts, salts, oils, candles etc.). We asked her if she has a favourite and which is the best seller?
I’m actually starting to streamline my range a little, some products will go for a little while, to make way for new things in the pipeline. The soaps will always be my absolute favourite, I find the process addictive, and meditative in a way. I usually find, my most recent soap creation becomes my favourite…until I come up with another one.
Hadrian's Wall Honey & Goat's Milk Soap by Oakwood Soaperie
Hadrian's Wall Honey & Goat's Milk - made with honey from her father's hives.
My all-time bestseller is my ‘Hadrian’s Wall Honey and Goat’s Milk' soap. I think partly because it has a good story (I’m using raw honey from my dad’s bees), and that it can be used by people with more sensitive and dryer skins as well as on children as there is no essential oil in the recipe, just incredibly mild and gentle skin nourishing ingredients. This one alone has been my bestseller for almost 5 years.
Running your own business necessarily means wearing several hats; of all the aspects your business involves, which task do you least enjoy?
Oakwood Soaperie, soap labels
New labelling for soap bars.
Ohh, that’ll be all the admin. It probably takes up approximately 30% of the time I spend on my business. Whether it’s processing orders, marketing on social media, writing my blog and newsletters, updating my business records or ensuring I keep compliant with the latest legal EU regulations for cosmetics products and now candles and home fragrance too.  
You attend several markets and place your products in various outlets as well as selling wholesale. Is this your ideal mix or would you prefer, for example, simply being able to concentrate on production and supplying shops?
Oakwood Soaperie market stall
Oakwood Soaperie participates in various craft markets.
I do enjoy attending markets and larger craft events, but in an ideal world, I’d like more traffic and orders via my website, as well as still being able to supply shops. I love the buzz I get from an event, meeting lots of new customers as well as regulars who come and find me around the North East on most weekends, but the occasional day off wouldn’t go amiss, a girl can’t work all the time.
We asked if there are any exciting developments in the pipeline?
Wedding favours by Oakwood Soaperie
Gorgeously packaged wedding favours.
Over the last few months I’ve been working hard on reshaping my range, developing new products and re-branding, these will filter through as they are completed over the next few months so, when I get to grips with Autumn and all the events on my calendar, everything should be in place for a good run up to the Christmas Season.
If you weren’t doing this, what do you think you’d be doing?
I have a Fashion and Textiles Honours degree and have been spending a little time re-visiting textiles techniques again on the odd occasion. I’m currently experimenting with Eco Dying on fabric and paper using plants, flowers and seeds and hope to develop some lovely new items incorporating this technique in the near future, watch this space.
Oakwood Soaperie soaps, bath truffles and bathing bubbles
Oakwood Soaperie goodies on display at Present Perfect.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d just like to thank you for your continued support of my little business over the years, it’s been a total pleasure to work with you.
Aww, thanks, Ceri. It's a pleasure for us too. Thanks also for giving us some of your precious time, enabling us to appreciate all that is Oakwood Soaperie.
Soaps created for the Tanfield Railway by Oakwood Soaperie
Oakwood Soaperie also created these soaps exclusively for Tanfield Railway.

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