Soap-making is a good place to start because the ingredients are readily available.
Watching Gina Roberts whip up a batch made it look easy enough for anyone to try. Pull on a pair of rubber gloves, arm yourself with a stick blender and a thermometer (a cosmetics maker's best friend) and it takes only a minute before the magic starts to happen. Caustic soda and water added to olive and coconut oils change the mixture's colour and consistency to creamy, like liquid toffee, as it becomes an emulsion. "I never ever tire of it," says Gina. "I could never go back to supermarket soap."
Add a little essential oil for fragrance (a blend of lavender-grapefruit-eucalyptus-rosemary is divine), rose petals for decoration, pour into moulds and wait a couple of weeks to harden. You've just got time before Christmas; maybe make a couple of batches as back-up just in case your first effort isn't quite right.
Or store away soap-making as a leisure idea for the holidays or a creative weekend, and make lotion instead which will be ready immediately.
That's what got Roberts started. "I set out to make a lotion because I worked out that it didn't matter what I put on my skin, it felt dry and irritated." She bought a book and taught herself. "That was the start of a relationship of love," she says 12 years later. "I just thought it was the coolest thing. It was creative, it was very therapeutic, sort of meditative, and I got to see how it turned out the next day."
There are disappointments, "I'm still learning." You won't have mastered the craft in three batches, but it's fun along the way to perfecting it.
A 100g bar of soap costs 50c to $1.50, depending on what you put in: honey, beeswax, lavender, essential oils, beer, wine, cocoa, herbs and spices.
Roberts' internet-based company Aromatics & More supplies raw natural ingredients for cosmetics and household products to hundreds of customers. More and more New Zealanders are choosing to make their own mineral make-up, lip gloss, eye shadows, lipsticks, body butters and cleaners. Even shampoos and conditioners: "People keep making and selling them. I haven't really mastered shampoo, but some of my customers are coming back for bulk products so they're having some success."
Liquid bathroom soap hasn't caught on yet. "It's just the best stuff, fantastic for cleaning - there's no comparison to synthetic." Roberts puts it into a spray bottle for around the house, and even uses it to get stains out of carpets.
People are making their own, not just because it's creative. People want to know what's in the stuff they're putting on their bodies and using at home. They don't want commercial chemicals such as laurel sulphate, which is a surfactant and puts the bubbles in shampoo. They also don't want to pay inflated prices for bought products, and believe their own natural products will do the job just as well or better.
Gina's company supplies more than 600 raw materials, some of which are organic, although going totally organic would double what you pay. Her soapcraft website offers some interesting features, such as pricing, recipes, and an email list for New Zealanders who want to ask questions and exchange tips. For example, New Zealand's climactic conditions differ from overseas and affect soap-making - in the same way climate affects bread-making. Some people are working away on their own without realising there are social and information networks. "I've always been open to sharing because that's how you learn," says Gina.
Gina's soap recipe
Makes 6 x 100g bars
250g each of olive and coconut oils
76g caustic soda (lye)
10g rose petals
10-15ml essential/fragrant oil
1. Measure your water and weigh out the caustic soda very carefully.
2. Either outside or under extractor fan, slowly add caustic soda to water and stir (never the other way round). Stand back and do not breathe in fumes. Wear gloves. Goggles and face mask recommended.
3. Allow to cool to between 30 and 40C. Warm your oils in a Pyrex jug or stainless steel container to same temperature as caustic mixture.
4. Slowly pour the caustic mixture into the oils stirring slowly. Once combined, start whizzing.
5. Use a stick blender to beat until the mixture is like a light custard - this is called "trace". It will hold a drip line of water across its surface.
6. Add colour and scent, and mix in well.
7. Pour into moulds and store in a warm place or wrap for at least 12 hours. It's best to wait a couple of days bit if you are really impatient you can un-mould and cut after 24 hours.
8. You should wait four to six weeks before using your soap so that the pH level has dropped to around 9.5 to 10. But if you're really excited two weeks would be okay.
Moulds: Get creative - you can use anything from cheap silicone cooking moulds to top-of-the-range soap-making moulds, food plastic packaging, chocolate moulds, shoe boxes or even a small wooden drawer lined with plastic wrap.
Gina's lotion recipe
Use pure alcohol or ethanol to sterilise all containers (I use a spray bottle to do this) and spray your wizz stick and thermometer before use.
200 ml of oils of your choice (You can also use butters like avocado, aloe, and chamomile, cocoa)
40 grams of Sam-e wax (brand name for natural emulsifier)
30 ml glycerine
300 ml filtered water, distilled or rain
1. Place all ingredients together in a bowl and heat to 70 degrees while the mixture sits in a water bath.
2. Remove from heat and wizz stick together. Allow to cool to 50 degrees C giving it a burst on the wizz stick every now and then.
3. Add 2.5 mil of Germil or 5 mil of citrus seed extract (there are other preservatives that can be used) and add your about 6ml essential oils. (Rough rule of thumb 1ml essential oil to every 100 ml of lotion).
4. Quick wizz stick again combining all ingredients.
5. The lotion will thicken as it cools. Shake regularly while it is cooling to mix in water that has steamed to the top. This is important to avoid growing mould.
Makes about 600 ml.
Getting started: Ingredients, recipes and tips can be found at aromaticsandmore.com.
For more information and to join the email list, visit soapcraft.co.nz.