Soap story has smell of success for Keilly
Walking into Keilly Sturgess' "soap shack" is a delight – dried flowers and herbs are scattered liberally across wonderful-smelling soap.
There are lotions and potions lining shelves and ingredients for gift boxes for her online customers ready to be shipped.
The soap shack – a specially-built workshop in the garden of her Leicester home – is the headquarters of Mad About Nature, her own skincare company which produces soap, creams, lip balms and bathing goodies.
And everything is made using natural products, herbs, flowers and natural colourings.
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It all began when her daughter, Molly, now nine, was born with severe eczema.
Keilly spent most of her time going to the doctors, who usually sent her home with prescriptions for more steroid cream for Molly.
One day, during a visit to London, she came across a handmade soap stall and got chatting to the owner, who told her about the benefits of making handmade soap.
Intrigued by the idea of being able to produce soap which was chemical-free and kinder to the skin, she began to do some research and lots of experimenting.
"My idea was to make stuff for Molly, rather than her having to use lots of products which have chemicals in," she said.
"What I didn't realise was how addictive and how much fun making soap was. I was hooked from the start."
After experimenting and giving away bars to rave reviews from family and friends – as well as noticing a major improvement in Molly's eczema – she decided to start selling her wares.
Her first sale was at a village hall. "I was so new at it, I completely under-priced everything. I was selling soap at £1 a bar."
Keilly sold almost everything that she had made, and was soon looking out for other shows.
Farmers' markets followed and smaller craft shows, before she started branching out into larger events.
As the events got bigger, so did the range of products – a variety of soaps and fragrances, then creams and lip balms, shampoos and bath bombs, for example.
"The more markets I did, the more I was able to find out what people liked and didn't like," said Keilly.
"I also found that I loved talking to people about how they were made and I found a lot of customers were just as keen to have fewer chemicals on their shelves as I was."
Since starting up, her products have gone from being displayed on top of a 6ft paste table to an 18ft display heaving with serums, salves, soaps and gift sets, all displayed with vintage style in rustic baskets and labels.
She's even had to buy a bigger car to carry it all.
Keilly has been keen to keep the packaging as green as possible, using recycled cardboard, paper and glass. "It's very important to me that I have as small a carbon footprint as possible," she said.
The soaps are made using a mix of oils, which are mixed with essential oils, natural colourings or clays.
She invented a master recipe and has set about customising it with different scents, patterns and ingredients.
Locally-produced ingredients including oats, honey, cornflour and beeswax are all sourced and used.
One ingredient Keilly will not use is palm oil, the production of which has been linked to the destruction of rainforests. It is commonly used in handmade soap.
"I was watching a documentary about how the orangutans were losing their habitats so that palm oil plantations could be created, and I didn't want to be a part of that," she said.
"I won't use it, and I know that you can get organic palm oil, but I would rather just cut it out completely.
"My recipe doesn't need it and I have had a lot of good feedback from customers who do not want to use palm oil products."
After a few years of selling at markets, Keilly applied to Leicester's Thomas White charity which gave her a grant to build her own workshop – and the soap shack was born.
Soon, production will be in full swing for her busiest time of the year – Christmas.
The shows are larger now, at Blenheim and Sandringham, as well as supplying local businesses and shops such as Green and Pleasant in Queens Road, Leicester.
"I have been known to get up at 3am from October to December," said Keilly.
"Christmas is a manic time. But I really enjoy getting out there, meeting people, telling them what the stall is all about, and spreading the message that you don't have to overload your skin with chemicals."
And there's a new project on the horizon, too, as Keilly has been approached to write a book about making soap.
"I never imagined I would be doing this all those years ago," she said.
"I just love it – I'd never want to do anything else."