Today I’m interviewing the Herban Herbalista herself, Sylett Strickland! Sylett is a fellow Texas whom I’ve met on a few occasions. I had the pleasure of hearing her present at the Texas Lonestar Seminar where she taught hot process soapmaking and liquid soapmaking.
Sylett has an easy-going personality and is a wonderful teacher. If you’d like to take a class from her, check out her class offerings in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Amanda: Tell us about how you got your start in soap making.
Sylett: I was hanging out in the public library with my 2 yr old baby strapped to me. She had fallen asleep and we had no AC at our house so I had time to browse the stacks. I found myself in the lipids section of the chemistry aisle and saw a book on soap making and thought to myself why would anyone want to make soap? You can buy it. But that made me even more curious and I checked out a book on rebatching. I rebatched a bar of Ivory with my favorite perfume and went back to the library to find another soap book. The next book was a book of cold process soap methods and the rest is history!
Describe your first batch of soap. What do you remember about it?
My first batch of soap was a sad affair, it was hard and harsh and flaky but I was so proud of it. It was not lye heavy but clearly I had not measured properly. I gave a piece to anyone who would listen to me. My next batch was much better.
How would you describe your style of soap making?
I would say that my style of soap making is rather freewheeling. I am precise in my chemistry but rather lax in my adherence to a plan. I like to be open to changes that can happen mid process or flexible when things don’t go as planned. I respect my ingredients but allow them freedom of expression.
Where do you find inspiration for the soap that you make?
I find inspiration for my soaps from cooking and herb crafting, I am a trained Chef and a trained herbalist and the coming together of different flavors textures scents and colors from the natural world and human cultures really excites me. Sometimes I like to play them off each other in interesting ways. For example I have soap, my very favorite one that is made from virgin palm oil, unrefined virgin shea butter, virgin palm kernel oil virgin coconut and common olive oil. The virgin oils are African and the common oil is European. It all comes together in this naturally orange colored soap I call 4 Virgins and a Hussy.
How has your soap making evolved from when you first started?
My soaping has evolved greatly from when first started. At first I was afraid to make my own recipes. I knew about the oil properties from my culinary training but was just intimidated by the process. After I became comfortable with the process of making soap I began to experiment with oils and additives. I began to play more. I am an impatient person at heart and in the beginning I had a small child with very curious fingers in the house so when I discovered hot processing from a soaper in Australia on a forum I frequented I was immediately hooked. I loved the immediacy of hot process and felt better about having soap sitting out curing that was no longer caustic. I liked the challenge of working to create designs in the cooked soap. It all reminded me of my time working in the kitchen transforming raw ingredients into new and beautiful art which then got used up. I work almost exclusively in hot process these days.
Have you ever had any big-time soaping fails? What did you learn from it?
One of my biggest fails was when I was first creating my salt bars. I had this great idea to chunk up a green hot process bar into a green salt bar to create a sea glass effect. Well I tried to do this in a crock-pot instead of my usual oven pots because our oven had gone out and the new one had not come yet. See, impatient. This was 100% coconut soap and it went totally translucent like it does but then all of a sudden it split. The oil just split out of it. I stirred it like crazy hoping I could bring it back together. I tossed in my chunked soap and the salt and slammed it into my molds. About 2 hours later I had this nasty, salty horrible oily mess on my hands. The oil came back out, the chunked soap all fell to the bottom of the mold and the soap crumbled when cut. I put it back in the crock-pot in an attempt to “rebatch” it. It never did go back together and became known on the soap forum I was on as Porpoise hoark. I learned the limits of using a crock-pot, how overheating can affect soap and that I needed to trust my instincts when it comes to adding ingredients and pushing those ingredients to their limits.
What is your favorite soap to make for yourself?
My favorite soap is my 4 Virgins and Hussy soap. It’s a nice hard bar that has big bubbles that break down to a creamy lather and leave my skin feeling clean without being stripped. It has no added fragrance or color. The color comes from the red palm oil and the predominant scent is from the virgin palm kernel oil, kind of a faint movie theater popcorn smell.
Where do you soap? Do you soap in the kitchen or do you have a dedicated space?
I currently soap in my kitchen, which is way too small. In Texas, many of the old ranch housed built in the 50’s had the laundry set up in a space right off the kitchen. We moved the laundry into the garage and I took that space and turned it into my soap lab. It was a 1-butt space, if that. I ran my soap business, SylettSoap out of that space for 5 years. I no longer sell because the house I’m renting just does not have the space for me to work.
When did you decide to turn soap making into a business? And what was the process?
I decided to open my soap business when it became clear that I would not be able to give away all the soap I was making and if I wanted to continue to soap the hobby was going to have to pay for its self. My daughter was older and I needed some income so it seemed logical to try my hand at selling soap. I mostly sold at craft shows and fairs and to friends. I joined Etsy when it first started but never seemed to be able to get it off the ground. I didn’t really like the back end of selling online. I could never seem to get things out without errors since I was doing everything myself. Eventually I had to admit that although I loved the craft shows and the interaction with customers, I was not very good at sustaining sales between shows.
Who is your all-time favorite supplier and why?
My all time favorite supplier was Supplies by Star, a local soap maker turned oil and ingredient supplier. I would make a day trip to drive to her place to pick up my order and we would talk soap. I probably spent more in gas getting to and from her place than I would in shipping but it was so wonderful to support a local business and talk shop.
What is your favorite mold and why?
My favorite molds are my Upland log molds. They are a wood log mold with silicone liners. The silicone liners make unmolding a breeze and the wood can take the heat of hot soap without warping.
What base oils could you not do without and what properties do they give your soap?
My favorite base oil is a toss up between olive and palm kernel. I love the mildness of olive and the cushy feel of its lather and I love the cleansing hardness of PKO. It’s less drying than coconut and creates great bubbles. It just kills me that PKO contributes to deforestation so I only use sustainably gathered PKO or PKO from Africa that does not involve orangutan habitat.
When I teach soaping classes, I just avoid palm altogether. I use what I call a supermarket blend of olive, coconut and castor.
What is your favorite soap-making additive and what does it contribute to your soap?
My favorite additive is tussah silk fibers. I add it to every one of the soaps I make. I Love the silky feel it gives the soap and lather.
What is your favorite fragrance oil or essential oil blend?
My favorite fragrance is Sweetcakes Lavender Cedar blend. It’s a combo of clean and medicinal and slightly floral that really appeals to me.
Who are your favorite soap bloggers or YouTubers to binge on?
I don’t’ really have a favorite, I used to hang out on the Dish Forum a lot and we would ogle each other’s soaps, this was before YouTube. I loved the work of 2 Australian soapers, Patti Flynn of Patti Flynn Soaps in Cairns and a soaper named Dianne2 on the forum. Dianne2 gave me the suggestion of switching to hot processing.
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?
If I could soap with anyone it would be Ben Franklin. He was such a fascinating man and I bet the modern process of soaping would fascinate him. He had such a curiosity of human experience about him that the vastness of ingredients and colors and textures of contemporary soap would get him pretty excited.
What is the one ingredient for your soap that you can’t live without?
The one ingredient I can’t live without in my soap is silk. Silk adds such a luxurious feel to any soap for just pennies.
What advice do you have for those just getting into soap making?
My advice to those just getting into soap making, is think of it like cooking. You have to respect your ingredients and know their limits just like a cook but once you are comfortable with the process you can play and make it your own.
What made you want to teach soap making classes?
I wanted to teach soap making classes because I wanted to share the fun I have making soap with other people. I had a short stint as a public school teacher and found that I really enjoyed teaching and watching people light up when they learned something new. I’ve accumulated quite a few experiences in my lifetime and if I can share them with others and help them find something that makes them happy then I feel good.
Describe your classes. Hands-on? Demo? Tell us about them!
My classes are hands on classes in small groups of no more than 6 people right now. I pair folks up with a buddy and we switch off making the soap so you have someone to watch you and keep an eye out for mistakes. I provide all the ingredients and the student gets to choose their additives. I have EO’s for the crunchy types and FO’s for those who like scents that don’t occur in nature like Green Tea Lettuce. Each student will make 2# of soap in my classes that they will have crafted from start to finish. They also get handouts with the step-by-step instructions so they can recreate the process at home.
Where can we sign up?
You can sign up for my classes in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area on my website https://www.theherbanherbalista.com/book-online
Thank you, Sylett! -Amanda
Really loved this interview. It is really interesting to read soaper journeys. Thank you Sylett and Amanda.