In 1998, four women, brought together by a common interest, gathered in a dining room in Deatsville.
Today, 11 years later, the group has grown from four to almost 100 members. The meeting area has been moved from a small household dining room to a large auditorium at Doster Community Center in Prattville, but the interest is still the same: homemade soap.
"We were on these different little groups before Yahoo was even thought of," Jennifer "Jen" Merk recalled about the beginning of the Alabama Soap and Candle Association (ASCA), which took place in her dining room. "As we went along, we kept picking up people who lived in parts of Alabama."
"So the next year, we had maybe 15 people and met at a church in Clanton; the following year, same place with maybe 22," Merk said about the first years of ASCA’s annual meetings. "The year after, we had so many we had to find a larger place.
"This year we have 98 registered, all women and men who make soap-related articles — candles, lotions, lip balms, any kind of toiletries you can think of," remarked Merk about the 11th annual meeting held June 12 and 13. "Some of them are hobbyists, some do it full-time and then anything that falls in-between."
Merk, who ran the ASCA single-handily for ten years and now serves as the group’s treasurer, started making soap in 1997.
"I have dairy goats and I needed something to do with all the milk they produced; you cannot drink enough of the milk," Merk recalled how her interest in soap making first began.
"I looked into making cheese and decided I didn’t want to do that, so the other option was making soap," Merk continued. "I tried making my first batch and used my own soap for the first time. I was totally hooked."
Today, Merk sells her homemade products at farmer’s markets during the summer and at various craft shows throughout the fall.
What began with only four members has now grown into one of the largest regional groups of soap and candle makers in the United States with over 50 percent growth in the last two years.
The 11th Annual ASCA Meeting featured several speakers discussing different issues involved in soap making. Demonstrations were held to provide step-by-step instructions on ways to make soap that people attending the meeting may not be aware of. Vendors lined one wall inside the auditorium selling their products to the soap makers – everything from oils and other scents for the soap, to wooden soap holders.
"Vendors are here for us to buy from directly," said soap maker, Sydne Spencer. "These are the people we are probably buying stuff from on the Internet. So they are here to sell to us in person."
On the other wall of the auditorium, members of ASCA brought their excess products to sell.
"It’s like our yard sale," Spencer laughed. "This is an addictive hobby; once you start doing it you can’t stop buying stuff."
Spencer, who makes soaps, lotions and other body products, began her soap making venture ten years ago. With some help from her husband, Spencer produces her products on their farm, Spencer Farms, in Taft, TN.
"When we moved to Tennessee from Huntsville, my husband, Robert, was working with the small farm outreach and he was trying to help the goat farmers with their sustainable farming projects," Spencer explained. "We decided we had to have a goat. We got a goat, then we got a couple of goats and one was a milk goat. I didn’t realize how much milk a goat would give, I had to learn to do something with the milk.
"Through my research, I found out there aren’t any big legal regulations you have to ‘jump through hoops’ for to make soap. So, I decided to start making soap."
Every one of the products manufactured by Spencer is made from goat’s milk.
"I specialize just in goat’s milk," Spencer added. "A lot of people do soaps made with other things like water. Goats milk soap is different than other soaps; it’s like lotion, it’s real moisturizing."
Spencer sells her products on the Internet and through word-of-mouth.
"Once people try it they come back and they bring their friends," Spencer said.
Like many of the members of the ASCA, Spencer is not a full-time soap maker. She is an engineer by profession.
"If I did this full-time, I think I would make a good living at it, but not as good as being an engineer," Spencer said. "It feeds my goats. It definitely feeds my goats and pays for itself."
The 11th Annual ASCA Meeting brought people from all over Alabama and surrounding states.
"The meeting is attended for many different reasons," said Sandi Garrett, President of ASCA.
"Attendees come to gain education about products and how to grow business as well as meet new people, catch up with old friends and just have fun sharing our passion with others," Garrett stated.
Garrett is from Birmingham and she began making soap six years ago.
"Several years ago I started researching the effects of environment on our lives and bodies which has led to the creation of products that are natural, luxurious and pampering," Garrett explained. I felt people needed this to offset the stress and busyness of our daily lives. We all need to stop and do something that’s just for us sometimes."
"This industry is growing," said Garrett, who is proud of the large turnout at the meeting. "We want to grow along with it."
Mary-Glenn Smith is an AFC intern.