At first, it was just a hobby – a way to help the family and earn extra income. But what started as a farm wife’s frugal creation has today become Lynnel Camling’s full-time job and a way to express her real passion: helping others.
Camling, owner of Oregon Soap Shoppe and Green Art, Etc., 91 S. Daysville Road, Oregon, Ill., uses her science, chemistry and nursing experience to create something that makes her customers feel good. Every bar of soap is handmade, using custom recipes and natural ingredients like lard, beeswax and oils.
“Some of the oils we use are good for psoriasis and eczema, so when soap is made with olive oil, castor, coconut and jojoba, it helps clear people up, and they’re so happy that, within a few days, their skin feels nice,” says Camling. “We have the pimples/acne soap, the pet shampoo bar, the sinus/allergy bar and the sports bar for sore muscles, among many others.”
Camling and partner Michael Olson recount plenty of stories from loyal customers who love how the soap makes them feel.
“Sometimes our clients come in and tell us about a problem, and Lynnel will whip up something for them,” says Olson. “One of our soaps is the result of a grandma who came in and told us about her granddaughter who had ichthyosis. We made a soap that could help with that skin condition. It came about because of this customer relationship and how sad it was that the other kids were picking on this girl for having scaly patches.”
Taylor’s Soap is one of nearly 200 varieties Camling produces from her own recipes, developed through years of trial and error. She constantly invents new ones, perfecting recipes from the feedback of family, friends and willing customers.
“I’ve spent years redoing batches, taking notes, writing down what I did, letting that batch dry, giving it to my whole family,” she says. “I’m always saying, ‘Here, use this soap, tell me what it does to your skin. Do you prefer this batch or this other batch?’”
Camling’s in-store mixing room holds dozens of vials, filled with natural ingredients such as olive oil, rice bran, shea butter and cocoa butter. She swirls in some color using ingredients like hydrated strawberry powder, turmeric, raspberry seeds, coffee grounds and clay.
Today’s mixtures are more complex than Camling’s first batches in 1990. Then a stay-at-home farm mother, she took up soap making as a hobby, gleaning recipes from friends. Camling soon had friends and family clamoring for her homemade product. With each new batch, she’d give away some and sell the rest. The more she learned about her hobby, the more it blended with her former career, nursing the elderly and burn patients.
“Because of the nursing background and farming, I wanted to know more about the ingredients in my soap,” she says. “I wanted to know why this ingredient is good, and what that ingredient does. When I started, there was no Internet, so I would write to the oil companies and ask for information on their oils for skin care. I’d ask about the acids and agents that help with skin and what they do.”
By 2000, Camling had moved from her basement canning kitchen to a storefront at Oregon’s Conover Square. A few years later, she moved to her current location east of the Rock River. Today, some customers will drive eight hours to find her unique product. There’s the veteran who buys Lemon Bergamot soap because he says it helps his coral rash. There’s also the customer who seeks out the Focus bar, for improved concentration.
Camling says the key is aromatherapy – using naturally good smells to improve skin or to enhance one’s mood. In the case of the Chemo Comfort bar, the scents have been known to relieve nausea for patients undergoing cancer treatment.
But Camling is cautious to say that soap alone is no cure-all – it’s just soap.
“We don’t say that soap can help everyone,” she says. “It’s not a drug. We’re just making soap.”
Perhaps the most amazing part of Camling’s creation is its versatility. Every bar can be used as soap, shampoo and shave cream, and, she says, keeps skin moist and hair soft. Her soaps use all-natural ingredients, free of petroleum products.
“For just $5.50, you get a bar of soap that cleans and nurtures,” says Olson. “That means no more plastic bottles for shampoo, conditioner and lotion to juggle in the shower or put in the recycling bin.”
Camling is resourceful, and was “green” before green was in vogue. When a batch isn’t perfect, she can recycle it by mixing it into new varieties. When it comes to packaging, she keeps things simple – wrapping each bar in a strip of recycled paper.
Even the store was resourcefully crafted. Olson, who friends call “Recycle Michael,” transformed beat-up shop fixtures and curbside furniture into attractive, functional equipment.
“We started this place from necessity, because we didn’t have money to just go buy new fixtures and whatever else we needed,” says Camling. “It ended up being a good thing, because we were listed on Green America’s ‘National Green Pages,’ a directory of environmentally low-impact businesses. The shop is 95 percent recycled and refurbished. That’s cool.”
Camling also carries her own handmade lip balms and foot salves, made from some of the same ingredients that go into her soaps. Plus, she carries “green art,” such as natural beeswax candles, glass art and recycled leather purses.
Camling gives away samples of her latest inventions, asking friends, family and loyal customers for feedback. For over a decade, she’s donated products to American soldiers through the USO, and she even sells to school fundraisers.
“We give them our soap at wholesale prices, so they make a lot more than they make on a candy bar,” says Camling. “Profits from our ‘Red, White and Blueberry’ soap and our ‘Land of the Freesia’ soap go back to the USO, and we make smaller bars that go into soldiers’ morale kits. I’ve been doing that since 1995 or ‘96, long before there was a war going on.”
Soap making is a labor-intensive craft, and Camling mixes everything herself using the longer and more exacting cold-process method. She and Olson often save the production work until after store hours, working until midnight, 1 or even 2 a.m., mixing and curing their latest concoctions. On average, says Camling, a batch takes about five weeks from start to finish, requiring careful curing and lots of attention.
It requires detailed planning, especially as orders pick up for custom Christmas gifts, not to mention from the store’s Web site.
It’s a lot of work for just two people, but Camling says it’s her faith in God and her passion for helping others that keep her going. She points to a sign on the wall, near a row of soap. “It says to never, never, ever give up. That’s my motto. I just count my blessings every day that I’m here.” ❚