Ste. Anne de Bellevue resident Sharon Rutherford created a line of artisanal homemade soaps to finance a charity that sponsored school children in Zimbabwe.
Anyone who has ever used a bar of Sharon Rutherford’s artisanal soap may well wonder about the origin of the delightful products.
Some of the names of her aromatic gems tell part of the story: Greenwich Village; Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll; Good Karma; and Woodstock betray a 1960s cultural sensibility. But the real story of the soap begins in 1993, when Ms. Rutherford was studying toward a master’s degree in parasitology on the Macdonald campus of McGill University.
“There was a man from Zimbabwe there, doing post-doctoral work in the lab,” she recounts. “We wanted to help his community. So he contacted his former school in Zimbabwe and asked if they had a destitute but capable student we could sponsor. I talked to some of my friends and we got together to finance the education of some students in the rural school there.”
The group was registered as an official charity: Zimbabwe Education Affiliates (ZEA). “At the beginning, to finance it, we made 1,000 pairs of beeswax candles, wrapped them in cellophane and bows and sold them with hand-made Christmas cards at holiday fairs,” she says.
Intending to create a marketable product that could sustain the charity in the long term, Ms. Rutherford took a soap-making lesson from a friend’s daughter. “I asked for donations and was given a barrel of sweet almond oil, a component of soap,” she says. Other elements included coconut oil, natural glycerin, and aromatic fragrance or essential oils. Sold at holiday fairs, the soaps were well received by a growing cohort of appreciative West Island customers.
One year, when there was product left over after the holiday fairs, Ms. Rutherford sold soap bars at the Marché Ste-Anne, an open-air market featuring locally grown foods and terroir products. She continues to sell the product there.
The charity, which financed the education of dozens of children between 1994 and 2006, came to an end when “we predicted that political forces in Zimbabwe would make it impossible to be confident that the money would reach the children it was intended for,” says Ms. Rutherford, a teacher of biology at John Abbott College.
The production of the soap, however, continued. Ms. Rutherford named her company Tannahill Handcrafted Soaps after her grandfather, a British orphan who was adopted into a Canadian family in 1911. “His birth name was Ernest Tannahill but his adoptive parents were Rutherfords,” she says.
Mixing the soap at home in her KitchenAide mixer, she annually produces some 2,500 bars in small batches, using plant-based oils and natural colours. “The soothing properties are due to the high content of almond oil and shea butter,” she says. “A dollop of vitamin E offers antioxidant properties, while the glycerin works to retain moisture, protecting skin from the drying elements of winter.”
The soap is “cured” for several weeks to allow the water in it to evaporate. “That makes it harder and longer-lasting,” Ms. Rutherford says, adding that she suspends production during the winter months “to take a rest.”
These days, she sells the product in three locales: Marché Ste-Anne, Twigs Café (also in Ste-Anne-de- Bellevue) and Pointe-Claire’s annual pre-Christmas Artisan Show.
There have been some 40 different fragrances throughout the years. However, finding the perfect combinations of aromatic oils took trial and error. “I had one that smelled delicious in the bottle but once it was soap, it smelled like feet,” she says.
It’s not suprising that Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll contains that 1970s favourite scent, patchouli oil skillfully mixed with champaka and Virginia cedar. Some essential oils used in the soaps include lavender, eucalyptus, mint, lime, coriander, anise, orange, rose and balsam fir. Honeysuckle, rose, lilac and lily of the valley are fragrance oils as are many other floral scents. “You can never predict how a soap will sell,” Ms. Rutherford says. “Scent is very personal. One of seven people hates lavender. And one of the most popular scents among men is honeysuckle.”
Honeysuckle is also this soap-maker’s favourite. “I love honeysuckle,” she says. “It makes me happy. It’s a cheap thrill in the morning.”
Tannahill Handcrafted Soap is sold at:
Marché Ste-Anne: www.marchesainteanne.ca
Twigs Café: www.twigscafe.com