stella marie soaps

I have a great gift idea, for yourself or someone you want to pamper. Stella Marie Soap Company is the passion of Kim Gonzaga of Providence, Rhode Island.

Kim lives with Jere, who writes this Red Sox blog, and is a mainstay of the Joy of Sox community. (I recently blogged about Jere's book, Dirty Water.)

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First of all, I love the look of the Stella Marie website - the funky names with movie, rock or baseball themes, the bright colourful layouts, the almost edible look of the soaps themselves. When we travel, we always walk through the local markets; I really dig all the different colours and shapes and textures, the visual array. The Stella Marie website gives me that same feeling.

I ordered some products, which arrived in a funky red lunch-baskety cardboard container full of beautiful but minimalist wrapping. Fun! It's the kind of package you want to leave on your kitchen table to admire for a few days before diving in.

But I finally did unwrap my Stella Marie, and I am hooked.

I've been using Big Poppy soap - for those who don't follow baseball, the name is a pun - and it is as refreshing as it is beautiful. I dislike products that are heavily scented, and in fact normally buy everything unscented. But the fragrances of Stella Marie products are natural, light and fresh, not perfumey or overpowering. Much to my surprise, I'm really enjoying taking mango-scented showers.

I've also got some fizzy bath salts and a salt scrub. I was afraid the scrub might be too harsh for my sensitive skin, but it's gentle and invigorating, and also smells yummy.

But the most wonderful item in my order was the whipped shea body butter. I have super dry skin (age + winter + swimming in chlorine), and it's hard to find something that soothes the dryness without leaving a greasy residue. This is it. The ginger-verbena variety I chose has a clean, citrus smell. I'm positively addicted to it.

If I haven't intrigued you yet, how's this: Stella Marie prices are extremely reasonable.

I associate specialty bath and skin-care products, especially those made with natural ingredients, with indulgent prices that I really shouldn't give into. But these babies are bargains.

I know ordering things online can be problematic for Canadians. Kim says she'll be glad to send Canadian orders by regular mail to avoid those ridiculous UPS fees. Of course shipping fees add to your total, but on the other hand, I doubt you'd find products this cool at such low prices in Canada, at least not in Toronto.

On the Stella Marie website, there's a page about the women behind the company name: Kim's two grandmothers. I was curious about the woman behind the whole company. I asked Kim a few questions by email, and here's what she had to say.

Why soap?

I have always loved big, chunky bars of old-fashioned soap. My grandmother (Stella, the Polish one) had a few lingering around in her bathroom. They were not heavily perfumed and they were slightly imperfect.

With the exception of a friend who had a bar of oatmeal soap that I thought was the bee's knees, I didn't see bars of soap like that again until I became an adult, wandering around little boutiques and fancy shops.

Knowing that the soap was made by hand seemed really special to me. Many came individually wrapped with pretty paper and ribbon and claimed to be all natural. This was especially appealing.

How did you learn how to make soap and other skin-care products?

My obsession with these soaps made me curious about how they were made. It was a big mystery to me. I started making soap using what is called, "Melt and Pour." This method is rather easy and safe.

Basically, you go to your local craft store and buy pre-made, unscented commercial soap base, cut it up into cubes, put it in the microwave until it liquefies, then add a few drops of soap dye and fragrance before pouring it into molds. I did this for quite some time as a hobby.

After a few years, I was ready to explore soapmaking from scratch. This involves the use of lye (yes, just like "Fight Club") and it intimidated me some at first. But after my first batch - and lots of safety equipment - I was totally hooked.

I learned the steps by reading all of the soapmaking books I had collected. I use the Hot Process, which is similar to the traditional Cold Process, but I cook the soap to speed up saponification. This link summarizes both processes.

I was directed to some really good online resources for my other body care products through the awesome community of soapmakers I became part of. I am always experimenting with new product recipes and additives. Soapmaking is really a wonderful hybrid of science and art.

What makes Stella Marie soaps different from commercial soaps?

No detergent. I use very simple ingredients: distilled water, olive oil, coconut oil, lye (you can't make soap without it), cosmetic dyes, and fragrance and essential oils. I sometimes add ground oats, poppy seeds, turmeric or shredded coconut, depending on the kind of soap I'm making.

I have several customers who use my soaps to manage their pre-existing skin conditions. Commercial soaps are cheap, but you get what you pay for, and those of us who live through bitter cold winters need to retain the moisture in our skin.

Grocery store detergent bars (they aren't allowed to call themselves "soap") strip our skin of its natural oils and lead to flaking and itching. They exacerbate conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Stella Marie prices are very reasonable, especially considering you use all natural, high-quality ingredients. How are you able to sell your products at such low prices?

I go by the industry standards for handmade soap which is one dollar per ounce. I think there are a few big chains who overcharge their customers (I won't mention any names!). Some tend to overdo with fragrance and dye which could contribute to the price tag.

What are your goals for the company?

My ultimate goal for the company is to open a real brick and mortar store. I'd love to get up in the morning, grab some coffee and start soaping. For now, I am just trying to get the word out and build upon on my customer base.

Being featured in Daily Candy Boston in September really opened some doors. The bridal market is my next focus. I just signed a contract with theknot.com for a year-long feature in their catalog.

I am hoping that no matter what direction the company goes in, I am able to remain true to the quality of my products and the things that inspire me - baseball, pop culture, punk rock. Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic fame are huge role models for me.

What would you most like people to know about Stella Marie?

I would like people to know that when they purchase my products, they are really getting a little part of me. That sounds pretty corny, but it's true. I put so much thought and love into my line and I just hope that they provide a relaxing experience for the bather, without all the commercial chemicals. I incorporate as many personal touches as possible, including little handwritten notes. I try to present my products to my customers in a way that I would want to receive them.

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