Interview with Gwynne Olsen

Today, we have a wonderful interview with Gwynne who is a member of our soap making group Saponification Nation. She recently started sharing photos of colorful soaps that simply brightened your day to see!

I wanted to learn more about her and after reading her interview, I’m glad I did! So sit back, grab a cup of something hot and meet Gwynne!

Amanda: Tell us about how you got your start in soap making.

Gwynne: Breastmilk! Yes, its true. Liquid gold is where my soap making journey began. I’m a little bit crunchy with things like pregnancy and birth. I’m way into yoga, home birth and other things that aren’t very conventional. So I wanted to do this one last crunchy mom thing, which was to make soap for my baby using my own milk I had in the freezer.

I heard handmade soap was a better option than anything store bought for a baby. Plus it sounded like a fun project to do, just this once. I never sought out to be a soap maker or thought of it as a possible business endeavor. I didn’t even know soap making was a thing! Until I had the soap fail of a lifetime, which I will explain in a minute.

After the fail, I started researching it like crazy and figured out how to make it correctly, an entirely new world opened up. I saw these colorful, intricately designed soaps that had amazing sounding scents. Right then I knew it was for me and the YouTube videos made it seem approachable.

I dabbled in some melt and pour, making cutesy little doughnuts with lots of sparkly glitter, giving most of it to my family and friends who seemed to like it. They encouraged me to keep going and once I started I couldn’t stop making soap! I soon realized this fulfilled something in my creative self I had been severely lacking for the longest time.

I’ve been passionate about art my whole life, majored in Art and Graphic Design, worked as a graphic designer, and then I became a stay at home mom. Art projects were proving to be too messy with toddlers who get into everything! But soap making didn’t take up much time or space so it was perfect. I started finding time to make soap any time I could. I’d ask for gift cards for soap making supplies for my birthday and I kept reinvesting whatever I sold to family for more supplies. It was an accidental discovery. There is no way in the world I would have stumbled upon soap making on my own, but I’m so glad I did.

Describe your first batch of soap. What do you remember about it?

I’d rather not remember it! My first batch was horrifying. It goes back to how I got started, just wanting to make a batch of baby soap for my newborn with a few ounces of “liquid gold”. Not knowing soap making was a thing – I just googled it and found a blog post that sounded easy enough. It had pictures of bright yellow creamy looking soap so I was stoked to make mine turn out like that. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

I followed the recipe exactly which ended up a complete disaster. The instructions didn’t say stick blender, it said “blender” and it said to use 4 cups of milk which is absurd since I was just trying to make a small batch. I also had no clue about lye calculators and making the recipe smaller. It didn’t say anything about why or how soap making works so I did all of this with no fear and I should have been scared out of my mind.

Thinking back I cannot believe nobody got hurt. Putting a burnt lye mixture in a blender with oils, really?! The end result was a literal hot mess and a huge waste of my milk that I never got back (and if you have kids you probably know that devastation all too well).

The weird mixture did not even fit into the blender, it turned dark brown, oily blobs were seeping out of other blobs, none of the soap mixed, it was awful. I put it in zip lock bags not knowing what to do with it and oil just kept oozing out. I did try to put some of it in molds and to this day I have no idea if it was safe to use, as I never used it.

So sad… I was beyond angry and disheartened by the entire experience. I refused to let that soap go to waste for no reason so I was determined to figure it out. I found the Anne Marie Soap Queen videos on YouTube and played them non stop, just streaming them for days on end. I bought soap making books, read them and legit soap making blog posts. I think I studied soap making more than I did for anything in college.

Then I bought an actual stick blender! And never looked back. I also never made breastmilk soap again. And that’s how I chose the name Silver Lining Soaps.

All failures have a lesson to learn from, a silver lining.

How would you describe your style of soap making?

I’m not sure I have a specific style, but I do have sort of a way in how I approach making the soap. So if I had to give it a label I’d say free form. For instance, lets put these things together and see what happens. Whether its combining soap batter at different stages of trace, pieces of another soap mixed into new soap batter or cutting up a soap block and pouring something over the pieces, I like to experiment to see what I get rather than have an exact plan on how its going to go.

I usually have a general idea of what I’m trying to create, but once I am making the soap there is usually some deviation to that plan and sometimes it works out for the better, sometimes not; but every time its a learning experience.

Its about going with my gut and trusting that the end result won’t be a total disaster. My heart beats fast and there is usually a moment of panic in every soap batch I’ve made because there is only so much time to make it work. You’re racing against the trace (I could have said clock but that’s not as fun). So I try to work with it no matter what is happening, not get frustrated and panic. For me, having an exact plan ruins the fun. Sometimes if it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted, I know I can create something else with it so its never a total loss.

Where do you find inspiration for the soap that you make?

Bright, bold colors and patterns inspire me a lot, especially Marimekko designs; those are great to pull ideas and color schemes from when I’m stuck. Abstract art, mainly paintings are a huge inspiration to me. There is a lot to be said about simplicity.

Simple ideas are easy to draw from and expand on to make your own. I don’t think a design has to be mind blowing and complicated to be impressive. In fact the less is more thing really appeals to me. Maybe a technique or color I want to try will inspire me to make a specific soap.

Anything can be inspiring – buildings, fabric, food, the ocean, a drawing one of my my kids made and of course all of the amazing soaps people make. The trick is to not be confined to a box; I feel like that’s where I get stuck doing the same thing over and over. Being inspired by many different things is key.

How has your soap making evolved from when you first started?

I feel like I’ve come a long way in a short time considering where I started, being self taught, and having 4 kids! But I still have a long way to go in the world of soap making. Its pretty expansive with endless recipes, techniques and even science and math, which I am terrible at. I found a recipe that I love and works for me and works for the things I want to do with it, so my interests aren’t necessarily to learn every single thing about soap recipe creation.

Maybe that will be part of my soap evolution. Experimenting with colorants, techniques and creating something artistic and visually appealing with what I have learned is how I plan on evolving. I appreciate the different things soap making offers from the all-natural bars to melt and pour donuts. The brightly colored and fun, sometimes quirky soap is what seems to pour out of me.

Have you ever had any big-time soaping fails? What did you learn from it?

Yes, definitely. The first batch I ever made was a huge fail as I mentioned, because I had no idea what I was doing, and the soap making instructions were not from a credible source as far as I can tell. I revisit the post often and it still makes me cringe. On the bright side – I learned to research soap making like crazy by people who are known professionals in soap making before I ever attempted it again.

I assume most beginner soapers know enough to research it, read a published soap making book by a professional, and hopefully take a class on how to do it, not read a haphazard blog post! So the whole thing was just a mess with the blender basically overflowing with lye and oils, overheating along with the burnt milk. And there was so much of it! I don’t know why it said to use these crazy amounts of ingredients.

That poor milk… But luckily nothing bad happened to anyone, and it was the reason I tried to learn anything and everything I possibly could to DO IT RIGHT to avoid another catastrophe. Seriously, that poor milk…

What is your favorite soap to make for yourself?

In truth, I haven’t made much for myself. I have made a few baby soaps for my kids and those were great. I think I made a honeysuckle soap a while ago with a really cool design that I saved, and sometimes I steal a bar from a batch that smelled good or looked awesome. But what I usually use are end cuts and things I can’t sell that have dings or were cut in an odd shape.

Its fun to see how the soaps look after they are used and its a good way to test them out as a “customer”. I use my soaps constantly just to see how they change over several uses. It really is so much more fun to use a cute bar of soap (or many if you’re like me and have a soap dish full of hand made soaps!) over a plain old store bought you-know-what bar.

And its handmade; someone put thought and care into making it. It kills me a little when I hear people say their soap is too pretty to use. It only gets better with each use and then you get to buy another one!

Where do you soap? Do you soap in the kitchen or do you have a dedicated space?

I soap in two different places. I use the laundry room for the most part which has a table, a deep freezer and all of my supplies. I mix the oils and lye on the deep freezer and use the table to pour the soap into the molds. Its easier to have two different surfaces to separate the mess from the fun part.

I spend quite a bit of time outside so I tend to do a lot of my soaping activities outside under our gazebo. Especially the photography because natural light is the best for taking good quality images. There is a mini fridge and freezer which is perfect for putting my soap in to cool where the kids won’t mess with it.

I have to think about that because I have 4 children and 3 of them are under 5 and get into EVERYTHING! There is also a baby swing outside so I can have my little sidekick by me and he’s safe while I’m making the soap. There are outlets to plug everything in and a hose to wash everything off. Soaping outdoors is also great because there is ample ventilation which is important because I am very sensitive to lye. I take advantage of the wet weather here in South Florida and leave my soapy dishes outside for the rain to rinse off.

How do you find time to balance your personal and soap life?

Right now I am striving for sanity over balance. I don’t have much of a personal life right now, ha! I’m also not at the business level where its really serious and I have to package lots of things and create constantly, so the pressure is off in that sense.

But my days are jam packed with mom stuff vs. house keeping and I get lost in that sometimes. Ok, all of the time. Making soap brings me back to reality, er maybe takes me out of it?

So I have to make time and do it if (nap) time allows, or soap on weekends when more husband help is available. For everything else, such as soap photos and cutting it, if my kids happen to not need me for a moments time, I will have them play outside, put the baby in a swing and take some pictures with them around me.

There are a TON of pictures you will never see of little hands, or a Spiderman toy in the shot.

I don’t try to separate my kids from what I do because they truly make the whole experience more fun. I would never get anything done if I had to wait to be kid free! Plus they like to look at what I’m doing and sometimes “help”. We are big into art in our house, so I involve them if I can. If I’m cutting soap I give them an extra soap scrap that has cured to use their clay tools on and carve little “soapings” (my youngest daughter coined that). I can’t wait until they are older and can do more! Mixing colors, doing the dishes…

What is your favorite mold and why?

A 4 lb. silicone loaf mold inside of a wooden box. The size is perfect and its sentimental because my dad helped make it. My whole family is from Wisconsin so when I use it I think of them.

What base oils could you not do without and what properties do they give your soap?

Definitely Olive Oil and Castor Oil. Olive Oil is gentle and you can use any percentage you want in your soap recipe. You can never go wrong with it; its great for beginners too. Castor oil gives my soap a great bubbly lather and I love it in small amounts. Those two are oils I cannot soap without. I have also made some great soap with coconut oil, sweet almond oil and shea butter.

Who are your favorite soap bloggers or YouTubers to binge on?

Of course I have to mention Anne-Marie, The Soap Queen! That’s just a given. She’s such a hard worker with a great work ethic, what she’s accomplished in her life is just mind blowing to me. Her day to day activities inspire me to be a better person as well, so I read her blog posts pretty often. And of course watch every single soap video she makes over and over.

My most watched soap video of all time though, is this “Making Galaxy Cold Process Soap” by Spicy Pinecone. I cannot get enough of it! The way they spin the soap around and create these galactic looking bars of soap.

They mention Clyde Yoshida of Vibrant Soap who has a pretty well know spin technique names after him, The Clyde Slide. He’s a good one to watch on youtube too. He gets into what he’s doing and is great at explaining his process in-depth. He’s a true artist.

I also like to watch Katie Carson of Royalty Soaps because she makes these great high top soaps and there are SO many of them! She’s great at engaging her audience.

I also have to recommend Canadian soap maker Ariane Arsenault of La Fille de la Mer. Really great videos about everything soap. Some of her soaps also use ingredients from her local area, the Magdalen Islands. (Read Ariane’s interview on LovinSoap!)

There are so many good videos out there. I suggest searching soap making on YouTube and find a technique you are interested in and just sift through until you find one that looks good to you. For a blog jam packed with e-classes, tutorials and all of the soap information you could ever want or need, well, there’s this one you’re reading right now that I hear is pretty good!

If you could meet anyone (living or gone) and got to make a batch of soap together, who would it be and what kind of soap would you make?

As long as we don’t have to assemble anything, I’d love to make soap with an Ikea product designer. Someone who is innovative with design that is functional, affordable and looks good. So maybe a soap shaped in an obvious way where you think to yourself “Why didn’t I think of that?” It might have a built in soap dish because its Ikea, and they can figure out anything.

It would definitely have to have a Swedish name too, like tvål. See how much better the word “soap” is in Swedish? Over half of our house is Ikea; it would only make sense to have an Ikea made soap at this point.

What is the one ingredient for your soap that you can’t live without?

Love.

What advice do you have for those just getting into soap making?

Before you start or even think about starting, make sure you have read up on soap making from a PROFESSIONAL! Do not google how to make soap and follow someone who claims to know how to make soap. Find reputable soap makers who have trustworthy information (read; this blog you’re currently on).

Definitely join a Soap Makers group or many. Saponification Nation is a good one where you can ask pretty much anything about starting out. You can even go to the library and find books to read for free! Once you understand the basics and how to handle lye properly, go for it. Start with making something simple that doesn’t involve a certain type of milk… Basically do the opposite of what I did when I started.

After you’ve made a successful batch just build from there with fragrance and color and most importantly, try not to get discouraged. In the end, its just soap! Keep trying and eventually you’ll start to surprise yourself with the endless possibilities soap has to offer.

The great thing about soap making is that its something you can build upon and make in a relatively short amount of time. It doesn’t take up much space and you can use it. You can create something really unique in a matter of hours or less and cut it shortly after, then eventually use it, sell it etc. The entire process is very satisfying. And I love that its art you can use.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the baby that started my journey! -Gwynne

Photo by Natasha Lievano Photography

Find Gwynne online! She is in the process of setting up her website, so check back in the future!

Etsy | Website | Facebook Page | YouTube

OMGEEEE, the baby! Thank you for such a wonderful interview, Gwynne! -Amanda Gail

By | 2017-07-31T11:14:06+00:00 July 21st, 2017|Soap Maker Interviews|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am a soapmaker, author and blogger! I started blogging in 2008, sharing soap recipes, design tutorials and publishing articles on various topics of soapmaking.

4 Comments

  1. Joan Broughton July 22, 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

    What a great interview…and the baby/Mom picture just topped it!!

  2. Debbie July 21, 2017 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    What cute, whimsical soaps! I enjoyed reading about the soap maker behind Silver Lining Soaps. I may have read that same blog about making soap in a blender when I first stared making soap, but I never tried it. Now there are so many accurate blogs and YouTube video channels that are brimming with creativity and different techniques. The artistry of soap makers is awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Brooke July 21, 2017 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Amanda,
    Thanks for this wonderful interview, and thanks to Gwynne for your willingness to share your experiences and fails! It brought me back to my first experience, which was bad, but not as bad! The site I found used measurements not weight. It didn’t say anything about using a freezer when using sugars (like honey) and my “soap” warped the pvc tube I was using for a mold (that’s how hot it got)! It also ended up volcano-ing and made a huge mess on the cookie sheet I had it sitting on. I learned why aluminum and lye don’t mix! 😉 At least that site mentioned the need for safety while using lye, the use of a stick blender (not a regular blender or hand mixer) and a few other things about the types of utensils and containers to use (although this individual used glass measuring cups they used for soap and cooking interchangeably, not good). That batch was not usable either and, like Gwynne, it made me do some extensive research so that I’d be able to actually make some real soap!
    Thanks again! This was a fun morning read and I feel the need to make some soap today!

    • Gwynne Olsen July 21, 2017 at 1:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Brooke! The recipe I followed also used volume and then a few things were by weight. What in the world?! I can’t belive these soap makers put incorect and dangerous information out there. I wanted to shine a light on my huge soap fail to hopefully save another person from what happened to us. Its so scary and it doesnt have to be. Lesson learned… Have fun soaping!

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