By Jennifer Roland
Tim Ledford of SLAB Handcrafted Soaps in Salem.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Oregonians are buying artisan, whether it is gloves they purchase from a crafter on the website Etsy, home-brewed beer they buy from a co-worker, or specialty cheese they pick up at a farmer’s market. Add to the list: handcrafted bar soap.
The growth in the number of Oregon’s artisan soapmakers has been impressive over the past 25 years. In 1986, when Laurie Fiesel of Laurelstone Soaps in Oregon City began selling her handcrafted soap, she found only two other soapmakers in the state. Now there are 125 active businesses registered with “soap” in the name in the state. The industry’s only trade association, the Handcrafted Soapmakers Guild, has seen steady national growth of about 150 members per year for the past six years, says Marie Gale, former president of the guild and owner of Chandler’s Soaps in Broadbent. Oregon is a national player in the handcrafted soap market; the guild’s 2012 conference will be held in Portland in May.
Oregon’s soapmakers sell their wares at craft and county fairs, retail locations and on Etsy. Although Etsy is only one channel in the market for handcrafted products, it has been a poster child for the handcrafted movement. The company doesn’t take credit for creating the movement, but it serves as a representative snapshot of the market. Since it launched in 2005, Etsy sales have grown to more than $300 million each year and are on track to top $400 million this year. Handcrafted soaps make up about 6% of the products currently offered for sale on Etsy.
Within this market niche, variety has grown with the number of producers. Fiesel’s flagship soaps are made with goat’s milk, and Gale’s are known for including no animal products. The price point for most handcrafted soaps is similar, about $4–$6 per bar, compared to as low as $1 for other bar soaps, so consumer preference for a particular formulation or fragrance is usually the deciding factor. Jamie Futoran, owner of Soap Dreams in Medford, which is known for the use of beer in its soaps, says she initially worried the market was oversaturated, “but once I got to a certain point, it just didn’t feel like competition.”