Once upon a time I swapped soap with Hajni Kele, the very talented soapmaster and owner at Mianra Soap in Cork, Ireland. The soap arrived, as international soap deliveries do, in a mail parcel. All the excitement of meeting soaps in person that you’ve only ever seen in pictures was there. The soap was carefully sniffed and examined from every angle and found to be lovely. The shape of the bar, the fluid swirls, the crisp colour contrasts, the delicious fragrance, the elegantly simple paper wrapping and the notion of a soap made by hand in a far-away land were all lovely.
To be honest I can’t tell you much about how the soap felt in use. After my first cursory but enjoyable test drive, the soap disappeared from my shower to re-emerge in my daughter’s shower. There it was savoured and enjoyed, properly dried between uses and diligently used over many weeks to the last sliver as good handmade soap should.
I have a wonderful daughter. She’s smart, considerate, funny and beautiful and I love her endlessly. Having grown up as a guinea pig in a soapmaking household, she takes well-formulated artisan soap for granted. She’s a straight-shooting teenage soap critic and will stay true to her own soapy preferences. She is also a talented writer with a good understanding of how to build a good story. One day she’ll be a storyteller to reckon with.
Soon after the soap that came from Ireland had been loved to the last bit, she came to me with the inevitable request:
“Mamma, can’t you make a soap like the soap that came from Ireland?”
“Well, even if I could make a soap like the soap that came from Ireland, I wouldn’t.”
“But why Mamma?”
And so we had a long conversation about creative integrity; about the difference between taking inspiration from another artist’s or artisan’s work and copying somebody else’s products.
Throughout the history of art, worldwide, aspiring artists have practised their craft and their art by copying the work of masters; those whose work is recognized as great. In this context copying is a step on the path towards mastering technique and method.
A few centuries ago, before photography fundamentally changed the way the world regards imagery, established painting masters kept large workshops churning out portraits and other commissioned work. The painting work itself was largely done by apprentices, while the master would add finishing touches and sign off the piece with his signature – his brand, if you like. Sometimes, if the master was busy, the master’s signature would be added by an apprentice. In days when marriage by proxy was regarded as acceptable eyebrows would not have been raised over this. The difference in status between apprentice and master was clear and recognized and only once the apprentice had, literally, mastered the same level of skill as his master, would he be accepted as a master in his own right with the right to take on work in his own name, set up a workshop with apprentices and teach others.
Times have changed, and today we regard it as a serious breach of integrity, a falsification, to sign somebody else’s name to your work or – perhaps more commonly in soapmaking – sign your name to somebody else’s work. Unlike other cultures where the subject matter in art is regarded as the main thing and copying a theme to the finest detail is seen as the highest virtue an artist can aspire to, our Western culture places great importance and emphasis on the artist as an individual. In art we tend to value the artist’s individual interpretation more highly than her choice of subject matter. Because we place such importance on individual performance, copying (taking after somebody else and replicating their work) is frowned upon and plagiarism (taking after somebody else, replicating their work and pretending to be the originator of the idea or concept) is seen as a serious offence. Not a modus operandi worthy of a master.
But how about inspiration and taking inspiration from somebody else’s work? Surely that must be acceptable?
It definitely is.
One of the defining characteristics of true masters of any discipline is that they share and let others build on their ideas – for several reasons. One, they recognize the importance of interaction and the benefit of input from other creative minds. Two, truly creative minds don’t ’arrive’. They don’t get comfortable and settle down with one single idea or concept, they keep creating and innovating. By the time the general public catches up with any one of their ideas, the truly creative mind probably has a row of others lined up already. Finally, the creativity of true masters tends to be fuelled by their passion for what they are doing. Passion is inspiring and typically loves being shared.
Inspiration is often what propels us to do new and interesting things, things that haven’t been done before or to do things that have been done before, but to do them in novel and interesting ways. Inspiration, as in having something spark an idea that gives rise to a thought that maybe connects with another thought and sets the creative juices flowing, is behind many of the inventions that form the pillars of our society.
The line between ’reaping inspiration from’ and copying something is sometimes fine, but it is a definite line and the difference is fundamental. Hard to quantify maybe, but fundamental. Copying is reproduction and does not need to involve either inspiration or creativity. You could say that you’re inspired to copy something, but if this inspiration results in a straight copy of something you’ve seen, your copy is still no more than a copy – until you put your own creative spin on it. Inspiration, on the other hand, can result in work that does not even remotely look, sound, taste or feel like whatever sparked the inspiration. We are blessed with the ability to make connections over our full spectrum of sensation, emotion and cognition. That’s were inspiration comes in, sparking those connections, setting the wheels in motion and sometimes resulting in truly original ideas. Of course, inspiration doesn’t always result in groundbreaking innovation, but most groundbreaking innovation has somewhere along the line been sparked by inspiration.
Art is communication, and in as far as craft involves art, craft is communication too. In all communication intent is crucial. What do we want to communicate, why do we communicate, and what do we hope to achieve with this communication? Being overt and transparent about our intentions is generally regarded as good and decent reflecting well on our integrity. In cultures where the norm for art is to copy the work of previous masters as precisely as possible, the intent of the artist is never to pass off the style or the technique as their own and personal. Whether stated openly or not the assumption is that the viewer recognizes the style, the technique and its history and appreciates or judges the work within this framework.
In our culture with its emphasis on individual originality things can easily get a little more confusing. When we sign our name to a work of art we communicate the intention of proprietorship: we made this; it’s ours. When it comes to a bar of soap it’s clear that the physical bar of soap was made by us and is ours, but how about the design used? Is that also something we created ourselves – or not really? In our culture it may well be assumed that we did create it ourselves if we signed our name to the work but ’forgot’ to specifically credit somebody else for certain aspects of it.
Now, we have to be able to take some things for granted. We don’t mention Archimedes every time we talk about volume and since cold process soapmaking has been around for centuries we can – fairly, I think – assume that most soapmaking techniques and designs have been around for much longer than the blog posts and YouTube tutorials on how to do them.
But, even if something has been around since time began it’s still decent and respectful for soapmakers to make mention of contemporary work that has inspired yours – particularly when presenting your work within the soapmaking community. Soapy designs aren’t trademarked and there are few if any legal sanctions anywhere for copying somebody else’s soap designs. But it’s worth keeping in mind that legal requirements are always minimum requirements. The bar for decent behaviour and good sportsmanship is often set a lot higher. Making a courteous acknowledgement of somebody else’s work costs nothing, raises your credibility and sets a good example.
So, how does all this tie in with the soap that came from Ireland? Just because I refused my daughter’s request to replicate the soap that came from Ireland, it doesn’t follow that I haven’t taken lots of inspiration from the soap and what it has come to symbolize in my household.
My daughter was not pleased with my refusal and so, for the longest time she wouldn’t let me live it down. When I’d show her a new soap she would look at it, smell it, and say:
“It’s very nice Mamma, very nice..”
Then she’d turn to me with a big, teasing grin and say:
“..but not quite as nice as the soap that came from Ireland!” 🙂
In our family lore the soap that came from Ireland has, over time, taken on epic proportions and mythical characteristics, as some of us reminisce about it while the exact memory of the original fades. Sometimes it has a dark oriental character and smells sweet and spicy of sandalwood and lotus flowers. Sometimes it’s a gradient from red over yellow to green smelling of fresh and fruity mango. It has become a larger than life chameleon of a soap.
For me the idea of the soap that came from Ireland has become something of an impossible benchmark. The soap I will never make but the one all my efforts are measured against. The unattainable if you will, but also what propels me to try harder and to look at new things, if possible with new eyes. You could say that all my soaps on an ongoing basis are inspired by the soap that came from Ireland. Not directly by the original soap perhaps (although Hajni’s beautiful soaps and stunningly crisp soap photography have been a great inspiration to me), but by the idea of perfection – impossible to attain and maybe an illusion, but always worth striving towards.
But, of course, many of my soaps have had plenty of additional sources of inspiration. These are some of my inspiration stories:
The Princess Alice Soap was inspired by my daughter Alice (pronounced [Alees]) who loved the soap that came from Ireland. In colonial times Princess Alice of Athlone, a member of the British royal family, was the first lady of Cape Town high society. She too served as inspiration for this soap with its royal crown embed. In addition, the delicate green colour and the rounded shape of the soap were inspired by the traditional Swedish ’Princess cake’, a delicious sweet cake filled with fluffy cream and custard and covered with green marzipan.
A queen to keep the princess company. Dark and regal yet infinitely feminine, The Queen of the Night soap was inspired by the character with the same name in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. A strong lady demanding respect in her own right and one of the most unfairly ridiculed characters in fiction.
The two-tone texture trim that I now make on several of my soaps was first inspired by a picture I saw of a striking pink and black layered soap log with what looked like a sprayed-on white lace pattern along the bottom/top and sides. That gorgeous soap was made by FinchBerry Soapery. I still don’t know how they make their lace pattern – possibly using a stencil – but I was very inspired by the idea of a see-through pattern in a contrasting colour on the soap. I held on to that idea and did several experiments. Just a doily or a normal impression mat gave a negative imprint without the possibility of using contrasting colours and creating a positive 3D effect. So, I decided to turn the doily on it’s head, as it were, and use it to create a texture mat with a rich and finely detailed relief unlike any impression mat I had seen. It worked beyond expectation and I have since combined this technique with the mica priming technique that I first saw introduced on some very elegant soaps by Lori Curry of Magellan’s Gift, creating a combined effect which is rather striking.
One of the soaps that I make with a textured lace trim is the East Indies soap. The white soap with its blue trim takes after the flow blue Melbourne china service that was passed on to me by one of my grandmothers.
My other grandmother lived next door to us when I grew up. As a small child I remember having breakfast at home and being dressed in the mornings and then being sent over to grandma’s while my mom enjoyed a bit of peace and quiet while she got dressed.
My siblings and I would keep grandma company while she was having her breakfast – often having a bit of a second breakfast ourselves. Every morning she would have her toast and tea from a beautiful blue porcelain service and I still remember the delicious smell of butter and honey on hot toast spreading throughout her dining room.
As I grew up I learnt that grandma’s porcelain service was made by the Swedish company Rörstrand and that it was called Ostindia, meaning East Indies. Legend has it that the service was inspired by a porcelain shard from the East Indiaman (or tea clipper) Götheborg that sank in 1745. Today Rörstrand still produces the Ostindia service, but the Ostindia cup and saucer in this picture are the ones that my grandmother used in my childhood.
Another blue soap with an exotic name is the Bombay Blue soap which came about after I saw a picture of a soap made by Charlene Simon of Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Charlene’s soap was a small round, moulded soap with a piece of loofah embedded on top. The soap was beautifully photographed in soft light that brought out all the beauty in the combination of delicate, translucent blue soap and natural, cream-coloured loofah.
I had been working on developing an oval blue brine soap with an Indian Ocean theme (I can see the ocean from my window), but I hadn’t come up with a final look that I was happy with. Charlene’s little blue soaps sparked an idea and so the Bombay Blue with its little cream coloured sea shell embed on top was born. The name was inspired by the blue gin, Bombay Sapphire, and the soap was given a fresh scent with plenty of juniper berry to match the notion of gin.
Of course, Charlene Simon is an inspiration to soapmakers in more ways than just by making pretty soap. She radiates positive entrepreneurial energy beyond continents and is among other things the successful founder and owner of the Bathhouse brand and a chain of the most beautiful soap shops anywhere. More than one or two soapmakers have looked at pictures from those shops and said to themselves: “One day..”. Incidentally, Charlene also drives a red car and has an aviating husband – both of which I can relate to 🙂
My red car inspired a soap early on..
My aviating husband – and the steady stream of re-recyclable aviation charts he accumulates – is the raison d’etre for the now classic Aviator soap with its minty fresh scent topped off with vetiver “for general gorgeousness”.
My first inspiration for the inverted stamp technique came from a beautifully photographed soap with a diamond lattice top made by talented soapmaker Lina Vilniškytè from Lithuania. The soap top looked like a wafer and the idea of using trace to make deliberate designs on top of the soap had an instant appeal. I soon tried out the lattice top myself. One day I accidentally bent my favourite straight lattice wire while cleaning it. I looked at the bent wire and had a sudden thought: “But what if..?” The rest is history.
I’m privileged to live in an area with plenty of excellent restaurants. One of them happens to have very fetching butter dishes..
A neat stamp on a curved surface? Too good to pass without trying it on soap at least once. Here on our latest Mojito soap:
Auntie Clara’s font designed by Anke Arnold of Anke-Art in Germany is in itself an inspiration to me with it’s Jugenstil elements, vintage and quirky all in one. According to Anke the font was inspired by the writing on a New Year’s card from 1906. The font is called Fortunaschwein or Lucky Pig which I take as an excellent omen and it makes it all the more endearing to me 🙂
Inspiration at its best moves in circles and bounces back and forth leaving a trail behind it. My recent picture of some of the hundreds of swans on the river Thames in Windsor is an illustration of that.
I took this picture of the beautifully posing swans in rich, reflected river light while on holiday in July and posted it on Instagram. Jessica Colaluca of Design Seeds was inspired by it and made a beautiful colour palette from the picture. Jessica’s colour palettes, in turn, served as inspiration for jewellery maker Rachel Rotabi’s (@vintagerehabjewelery) delicate bead necklace:
Inspired by the swans as well as by Jessica Colaluca’s row of colours I made the Windsor Swan soap.
I have plenty more inspiration stories, but from the soap that came from Ireland to music, cars, swans and butter dishes, soapy inspiration is pretty much everywhere for me. Beyond those mentioned here I’ve been inspired by the work of countless other soapers from all parts of the world. It’s a great pleasure and privilege for me and I hope to inspire others in turn.
Beautiful writing which makes a hugely pertinent point both generally, and more specifically, within the soaping community. Thank you Clara for a very enjoyable read!
Thank you Vicki! 🙂
You truly are an inspiration, Clara! Your generosity in sharing your soaping experiments is much appreciated.
And if your beautiful daughter is a great writer, then it’s clear where she got that from too ……
Thank you Debbie! Your beautiful rooibos Ghost Swirl should really be part of this post too, but I’ll have to come back to that another time.. 🙂
Loved this post and the stories of your inspiration!
Thank you Colleen! <3
As always, wonderful. Blush – thanks for the mention! You have inspired the whole soap world!
Thanks – and thanks for the inspiration! 🙂
Amazing, how you get inspiration with eyes wide open, translating everything into delicate colours and shapes! 🙂
So much to see – so little time to see it in 🙂 Thank you!
Your site was an inspirational find! Many thanks for your
Thank you – hope you enjoy it!
The more I read your writing, the more I see your work, the more admiration I have for you. Thank you for putting all this into well crafted words.
Thank you Bhakti! You too are a great inspiration to so many! <3
Thank You Clara for your warm words of cherish. I am humbled and so very chuffed :)!!!! It came as a total surprise on a wet and rainy Monday (expect nothing less in Ireland) and made me proud as punch I admit.
Interestingly just a minute before opening the link to your blog post I received a random text from a friend claiming she dreamt that I won an award. Not one for shiny trophys I laughed out loud! Well…… little did I think what was awaiting me!
Amazingly well written piece and whilst enjoyed every bit of it this sentence really hit home: ” Inspiration at its best moves in circles and bounces back and forth leaving a trail behind it. ”
Until we meet again 😉 Much love: Hajni
Thanks Hajni! Our little swap back in the day had more far-reaching consequences than I could ever have imagined – how wonderful is that! Thanks for being an inspiration! <3
Oh that swap! Too long ago too long ago Clara! I am pretty certain Soapmaker’s beautiful daughter doesnt believe in Santa but may be just may be…:) Would You please email me your address? xxxx
I think she might just stretch enough to believe in Santa – for a good cause! 🙂
The most beautiful soap related post I have ever read! Thank you, Clara!
Thank you Natalia, can’t tell you how those words warm my heart! <3
As always, Clara, you make me want to be a much better soaper than I am. You are truly THE inspiration for lots of people. I enjoy your posts and pictures, trials and errors and compare them to mine – it always seems your errors are not nearly as bad and harmful as mine, though. Wonder why that is???? LOL Always, ALWAYS give credit where credit is due, even if you aren’t “required” to do so. It causes a smile and a remembrance for your honesty.
Thanks Cindy and I so agree – in the long run it tends to pay off to do the right thing.
So much food for thought that my head is spinning. If we just take a walk or look out the window or as you suggested go back in memory we have a flood of inspiration. Thank you so much for making me think and look.
Thank you! We all have memories and impressions that we can tap into. Sometimes a little introspection can be a good thing.
Your daughter must have got your writing skills…
What can I say that isn’t already said – just wish I could do it in Norweegian
You are an inspiration, and your soaps and writing too.
Thank you Yvonne! Hade jag skrivit allt detta på svenska hade det kanske blivit elegantare, men då hade min berättelse nått en mycket mindre läsarskara. Tack för de vänliga orden! 🙂
Så trivelig med lite svensk. Ja du, ikke mange nordiske såpe/tvål tilverkere, så det blir på engeksk – de vet ikke hva de misser….. Jeg elsker “the waddling” på din tvål, den gikk rakt i hjertet og jeg ble så glad
Det är sannt, lagstiftningen i Norden uppmuntrar inte till tvåltillverkning i liten skala 🙁 Därför tillverkar en del av oss vår tvål i Afrika.. 🙂
What a great blog post! Very interesting to read about the influences in your soapy history. 🙂 I also find it a bit funny that you would post on just this exact topic as I (impatiently!) sit here in the States and wait for one of YOUR soaps to arrive on my very own doorstep for the exact same reason you mention. Your blog posts always entertain and get my creativity churning. I look forward to owning and experiencing one of your soaps. 🙂
Thanks Erin! I just spent some quality time on the phone with the South African Post office and they tell me the parcel arrived at JFK a week ago, ie it is on US soil and should not take too long to reach you now.
Woohoo! Thank you for the update.
It’s a pleasure! 🙂
As always, a joy to read.
Thank you Kevin! 🙂
I want you to know that you are the one who inspires me most. I am not a professional soaper and there are thousand things to learn, and I hope to be a good soaper as you are not only with technics but also with healthy mind & soul. I wanted to try to make silicon lace as your tutorial, but instead, I ended up with putting thick torson lace on the bottom of the soap mold. It was not of course as good as yours, but still looked ok and I was very happy anyway. I will search all my surroundings to get inspired from now on. Thank you and my next challenge would be your beautiful sculting molds….hahaha!!
Thank you Lea! I’m glad your lace soap turned out well!
These are absolutely beautiful! The lace and layers of these soaps are done perfectly. I also really love the seashell mini soaps. =) And your swan photo story is true creative serendipity.
Thank you Anne-Marie! <3
Your soaps and work is so inspirational. I love your creativity and the fact that you you care kind to share your craft and ideas with us. I hope to get to use one of your soaps in the near future.
Thank you Preciosa! As I said, passion loves to be shared 🙂
Love the stories …. My soaps are inspired by people , places and events. I say every bar has a story!
Thanks for sharing ❤️
I also think every bar has a story and that is one of the things that makes handmade soap unique. The thoughts, hopes, plans, dreams and memories of the soapmaker are woven into the soap and the soap becomes a reflection of these things.
Of all the heights of Inspiration!!!
Thanks to Amanda Gail for this link on her Facebook Page. 🙂
Your discourse breathes sweet, delicate “Artisan Intimacy” fueled by an Exclusive Exuberant Passion!
A newbie has been INOCULATED!!!
Thanks Auntie Clara! 🙂
Thanks Angella! Glad you liked it – happy soaping! 🙂
sigh…Clara, amid the excitement and chaos of a move , a new job, and preparing for Christmas with children scattered near and far I consciously sought you out today . Your words and stories drew me in and after reading it all, I reentered my life relaxed and renewed… That sounds cheesy and trite, but I see everything you write and photograph with real joy and interest. Thank you !!!
Hi Laurie! I’m so glad you liked the post. Wishing you the best of luck with all the new things in your life and a happy Christmas!
Your pictures have always been a delight and your writing is no less. I had the joy of purchasing some of your soap this summer and was so excited to receive my little package all the way from South Africa. What fun to have a bar of soap with the little green frog perched on top :). I still have one carefully guarded bar of your evening primrose oil soap that I use daily on my face. I am inspired by you, your creativity and wisdom too. This post was beautiful and so well-written. Thank you for sharing your craft so generously. Your soap is truly pure art.
Thank you Sarah! So glad you enjoy the soap and glad you enjoyed this story too 🙂
Master class! 🙂
Thank you Dara!
Hi Clara, I absolutely love your design and creativeness!!! So gorgeous and inspiring.
I love your coloring as well, what type of color pigment did you use in your soap making?
Thank you Rena. I mostly use mineral pigments as in ultramarines and oxides. I like them because they don’t bleed in the soap the way dyes do and they keep their colour over time without morphing.
I have just ventured into the art of soap making. I have and educated design background, mostly in interiors and architecture. When my daughter was born almost 9 yrs ago my creativity took an understandable halt. I have a ceramic studio at home to keep the craft-creative side of me inspired and this informs my ‘real’ job, designing spaces and places. However, I have come to see the beauty in the everyday and in the smaller details of our every day lives mostly I think, because of my daughter. It started incocently enough…making craft store soap kits for birthdays and holidays. The one thing my husband says I defiantly past on through MY genes is the the love of bathing lol.
So, since I now have less time to occupy my bathtub since my daughter is always in it, I decided to try my hand at making glorious natural soap and spa inspired products to enhance her joy of bathing.
The typical craft kits, and basic instructions are fine alright, but not enough to quench my desire to design my own with this clean, fun and even scientific medium. Somehow I stumbled upon your site and this post specifically hit home. I only can imagine my daughter at the same age as yours poking around my soap studio and offering her young, critical but user-centric advice:) She already is acting like the ‘top chef’ in how she critiques my soapy creations; too rough, too slimy, weird shape, yucky scent. Alas, it just inspires me to keep trying to please her little spa desires.
Your writing, honesty, amazing creations and most of all creativity inspire me to keep trying to elevate the everyday, or what many have relegated to the mundane chore of washing up with whatever bar is in within reach. I believe that it is in the smallest details, the daily rituals and the intimate connections with the products we choose to use everyday, that real appreciation for the art of living exists. Thank you for elevating ‘soap’ to that category of ‘art in the everyday’.
Thank you Tamara! All the best for your soaping adventures ahead – and enjoy your daughter! <3
What a beautiful post! the words and pictures just captured my attention like nothing else! it has inspired me to try my own hand at making soap. where did you get your materials? it was suggested i go to bulkapothecary.com/categories/soap-making-supplies.html but i am curious what you think? i’ll check out that site in case your busy. thank you so much
Thank you! I get most of my supplies locally here in South Africa; some of the best olive oil in the world is produced here and South Africa is also a producer of high-quality essential oils. If you’re in the US there are many excellent soapmaking suppliers closer to you. Just google soapmaking supplies and you’ll have a nice list.
Dear Aunti Clara,
I remember when I first saw your beautiful soap, I was amazed at how you could make something sooo beautiful and truly understood for the first time when people would tell me, your soaps are too pretty, I am putting them in a drawer to make it smell nice, and mine are not even close to the beauty of yours! Your soaps are works of art and a total inspiration for this soapmaker. I dream of making soaps as beautiful as yours someday. Right now I am learning new swirls, but your beautiful soaps inspire me to move on in creating. Thank you for your beautifully written blog.
Thank you Dianne! <3
Dealing with Copycats, Imitation, & Intellectual Property Theft
[…] the fight. (And to be honest, sometimes, what we perceive to be a copy isn’t necessarily so. Clara of Auntie Clara’s wrote a fabulous piece on inspiration vs. reproduction in soapmaking, …) Just like in other areas of your business, you’ve gotta pick and choose your battles. […]