By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Aromas of cedarwood, rosemary and lavender are in full bloom inside Kendra Schwartz’s Spruce Cone Drive home. It’s a soap-making day, and in true cottage industry-fashion, the kitchen and a spare room have been co-opted for different stages of production.
Wearing pigtails and a colorful, oversize apron, Schwartz moves sprightly between the kitchen, which serves as the chemistry lab for Lone Peak Soapworks, and the spare room where her natural soaps, once mixed and poured, undergo a three-month curing process.
Bars of soap toward the end of that process—in flavors like coffee peppermint, orange poppy and lavender oatmeal—are spread out on breathable wooden shelving. When sufficiently dry, which slows disintegration, they will be wrapped in a simple paper cuff printed with the Lone Peak Soapworks logo of a woman kicking her cowboy boots over the edge of a bubble bath.
This is Schwartz’s second year selling her all-natural and organic soaps at the Big Sky Farmers Market. What started out as a hobby became so popular with her friends and family that she decided to sell them to the general public.
Schwartz also works at Ari O Jewelry Studio in Big Sky Town Center, where she does beadwork, assembly and is learning the basics of metalsmithing. Although she’s dabbled in jewelry making since she was a child, and has worked extensively as a baker, she never really thought of herself as a creative person.
“But now that I think about it, I guess I’ve always been making things,” said Schwartz, whose infectious bark of a laugh is quick on the heels of most of her comments. “I just never put it together or thought to label myself ‘creative.’”
Starting to make her own soap in 2015 fell in line with a longstanding shift toward healthier lifestyle choices, such as eating organic food and choosing non-GMO products.
“Why make such an effort to put good stuff in your body, and not think about what you put on the outside of your body?” Schwartz said.
Her soaps have bases of shea butter, as well as olive, avocado and coconut oils. Instead of pungent synthetic fragrances, Schwartz uses only high-grade essential oils and natural ingredients such as fir needles, oats, dried lavender, and coffee for scent and texture. Spices you’d find in most kitchen cupboards are used as colorants, including paprika, turmeric and cinnamon.
“I’ll never be able to go back to store bought soap,” said Schwartz, whose products have converted her entire family and quite a few others.
On this June day, Schwartz is filling a special order for lemon calendula soap-on-a-rope for Hungry Moose owner Jackie Robin. After finding the strap helpful for her husband Mark, who has ALS, Robin has placed a larger order that she plans to send to others suffering from the neurodegenerative disease.
In the kitchen, Schwartz dons protective eyewear and a face mask before shaking out a carefully measured amount of flaky white food-grade lye into a pot in the sink.
Saponification is a chemical reaction that occurs between lye and a fat that creates soap and natural glycerin. Both substances are chemically transformed, so while soap is made with lye, it doesn’t contain lye.
Still, Schwartz takes precautions with the substance and is fastidious with her measurements and proportions.
“Like baking, you don’t want to mess around,” Schwartz said. “I do it to the decimal place. If it’s 7.8 ounces, it doesn’t mean 7.6 or 8 [ounces]. I don’t want to mess around with potentially hurting someone; and I don’t want my soap disintegrating.”
Schwartz adds water to the lye and the mixture begins to give off steam. When a laser thermometer reads 179 F, Schwartz nestles the pot in an ice bath—the idea is to have the oils and the lye mixture within 10 degrees of the same temperature.
When she adds the heated shea butter and coconut and olive oils to the lye and water, saponification begins immediately, the mixture taking on the consistency of creamy pudding. Lastly, she adds the essential oils. Once thoroughly mixed with an immersion blender, Schwartz pours the smooth liquid into a rectangular mold lined with freezer paper.
In the spare room she dips loops of rope into the mixture, which is thick enough to hold them upright, and wraps the mold in towels and plastic wrap to keep the heat in and further encourage the saponification process. After three days, she will cut the block into bars and they will take their place on the drying shelf.
At the Big Sky Famers Market, held every Wednesday during the summer in Town Center’s Fire Pit Park, Schwartz typically has 10 varieties of soap available at her Lone Peak Soapworks booth. She even sells a woodsy smelling bar she calls her “man soap.”
Although she says she could probably make some money if she raised her prices or cut back on the quality of ingredients, she isn’t willing to compromise.
“You get what you pay for,” Schwartz said. “If it’s cheap there’s probably a reason it’s cheap. To me, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right.”