Self-confessed serial crafter Nichola Penn began making soap as a hobby three-years ago. With a degree in biology, and a passion for both learning about plants and the great outdoors, she soon fell in love with the science and creativity behind soap-making and it wasn’t long before she launched Boo Cottage Botanicals as a full-time business from her home in West Bagborough near Taunton.
Nichola: "I really enjoy all sorts of arts and crafts, like knitting, sewing, sketching and drawing, and just decided one day that I would like to make soap. That was in the summer of 2014. I had absolutely no idea what it would lead to…or when what I was letting myself in for! After coming up with some soap that I was happy with, I began giving it to friends for presents. They were all so enthusiastic and were really encouraging about it and said I should take it further – and so Boo Cottage Botanicals was born. Boo Cottage was the name of our first house and it just had a really nice ring to it so that’s why we used it for the company name."
Nichola then spent a lot of time researching the "art of soap making" and spent a huge amount of time perfecting some recipes. And she admits there was a lot of trial and error involved in order to get something that she was really happy with it.
Nichola: "It paid off though because, to sell products properly, all the products have to be certified by a cosmetic chemist, which isn’t cheap. So I wanted to make sure what I was submitting was up to the standard required. I found, quite quickly too, that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous and once I had done my research I became really aware of some the ingredients used in some products, particularly some of the synthetic preservatives and foaming agents. Then I read about the potential implications on your health so I was determined to create a product that was made using the finest, natural ingredients without anything synthetic in them. There has been a real change in attitudes towards skin care products over the last few years and people are increasingly becoming aware of what they’re using. A bit like food I suppose, people want to know what they’re eating, where it’s come from and how it has been grown or reared – it’s becoming the same with beauty products. A lot more people want to know what’s going on their skin."
Initially Nichola and her partner, Ben Bryant, were working full-time and doing the soap business in the evenings and at the weekend. Over time they realised that Boo Cottage Botanicals was what they really wanted to be doing and so gradually cut back their hours on their other jobs in order to focus on the business. At the end of last year they made the big step to go full time, and they haven’t looked back since.
Nichola: "We outgrew our first house and are now leasing premises in West Bagborough, about 20-minutes from Taunton, at the foot of the Quantock Hills. Although quite a big step, we’d thought it all through properly and done the maths and it has been brilliant. It’s become the centre of everything we do. It’s our making studio as well as our office, and it’s also an informal shop where people can drop in and see us and buy some goodies. We have also started running workshops where people can come and have a go at making various products for themselves. We do one that is purely soap making and the other is a variety of skin care products. People that have been on the courses absolutely loved that they could choose what they wanted to make and, to a degree, what to put in them in terms of oils, butters, fragrance and colour. Seeing the goodies they produced at the end of the day, and seeing the satisfaction on their faces as they took home what they’d made has been absolutely brilliant and we’ve already had some people saying they’ll be back to do the other course."
Even though Nichola and Ben are expanding the Boo Cottage Botanicals range all the time, it’s important to them to stick to their original ethos and inspiration, in that the products are totally natural. They only use the purest essential oils (they will not touch synthetic fragrance oils) and natural colourants, such as calendula petals infused in sweet almonds oil, paprika infused in olive oil, a blue-green algae called spirulina, French pink clay, parsley, and nettles.
Nichola: "We began by just making a couple of varieties of soap and then gradually increased the range. Then we introduced guest soaps, lip balms and bath truffles, which are like a luxury bath bomb and contain shea and cocoa butter which are amazing moisturisers. We’re developing new products all the time and have a number that we’re hoping to have finalised by the autumn. We’ve got body butters, moisturisers, balm bars, hand creams, and all sorts of other things in the development phase. These will all have to be certified as well so we’re just making sure we’re 100% happy with them before we submit the recipes. Although palm oil can be ethically sourced we choose not to use it because it’s a bit of a contentious topic for some people. Instead we use other gorgeous oils and butters, like cocoa butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, mango butter, and shea butter. We also use goat’s milks, beeswax, and honey in our products. We’re always looking for inspiration for new products, and sometimes that comes when we’re out and about in the countryside and see all the different plants that we could use. We’ve seen so much elderflower recently that we’re now looking into opportunities to use it but, also, plants like meadow sweet and yarrow have caught our imagination."
Nichola says the response they’ve had from their customers has been fantastic, and the couple couldn’t be prouder of their products – even if making them can sometimes be a long and precise process.
Nichola: "People really seem to like that we’re local, that everything is handcrafted, and that they know they’re getting a natural product that’s free from parabens, SLS, and the other synthetic ingredients out there. The making process is relatively quick for the all the products but the tricky part for us is the fact that the soap takes between four and six weeks to cure, in other words to reach the optimum consistency. We’re always having to plan ahead in terms of what fairs and sales we’ve got coming up to ensure the stock is ready to be sold. On top of that we’re now stocked in a number of shops in the south-west and need to make sure we’ve got a constant supply of whatever they might want. We can’t just make the soap one day and sell it the next, it’s a lengthy process so we’re always looking ahead to ensure we can meet the orders. We’re so proud of our products in that that we’ve come up with an idea of what we want and then to go through the creating stage to perfecting it and getting it approved ready to use and sell is really satisfying. It’s brilliant seeing the final product once they’re all wrapped and labelled and good to go. We’ve had so much positive feedback from people that have seen or used our products that there’s a real sense of pride in what we’re doing."
Her passion for her products is clear, but why does Nichola love Somerset?
Nichola: "I’m a Somerset girl and, just through coincidence, Boo Cottage Botanicals is now based less than a mile from where I grew up. I absolutely love the Quantock Hills and seeing them change throughout the seasons, but Somerset as a county is just so incredibly diverse and that’s what I love so much. From the wilds of Exmoor, to the Levels and Moors, and the massively under rated coastline, there are just so many amazing places. After the Quantock Hills I would have to say my favourite place in the whole county is Porlock Bay, and in particular Hurlstone Point, the tranquillity and of course the sea – whatever the weather I’m captivated by it!"