Soap Lady Comes Clean

Behind the scenes of the bubble business.

Photo credit Jen Fariello

Carole Kindel

Carole Kindel’s Old Dominion Soap Company makes up to 30,000 bars of soap each year.

It’s hard to pass a display of homemade soap without buying a creamy, scented bar. Every detail of a soapmaker’s booth is designed to stop customers in their tracks: wafts of essential oils, swirls of natural colors, and the offer to touch and sample the enticing, moisture-rich products.

Handmade soap is big business in Virginia, says Carole Kindel, who owns Old Dominion Soap Company and teaches soapmaking at her home studio in Radiant. “People like knowing where their products come from, and handmade soap allows tremendous control of quality and preferences.” Kindel should know; she produces as many as 30,000 bars per year—so many that the handcrafted soap community simply calls her “The Soap Lady.”

Kindel was divorced and raising two children when she started making olive oil soap in 1998. She founded Old Dominion Soap in 2000, and then took a leap of faith in 2003 and quit her fulltime job. “I knew that creating things made me happy and wasting my life stuck in traffic did not,” she says. Kindel set out to grow her own business as many others have, through long days at craft shows, farmers’ markets, and expos, and later via the internet. She remarried, and her husband and grown children helped her work shows.

Through it all, customers kept asking questions about making soap and sourcing ingredients. “When I started out, I didn’t have the internet,” notes Kindel. “I taught myself using books from the library and ingredients I bought at the grocery store.” Remembering her own struggles, she began offering beginners’ classes in 2013; she has since taught almost 500 students from five states to blend precisely measured ingredients into loaves of soap that they take home the same day. “It’s a diverse group—women, men, retirees, young moms, attorneys, truck drivers, nurses, and teachers,” says Kindel. “There’s no common thread, other than we are all interested in creating products that are good for our skin and environment.” Classes fill up almost as soon as they are posted on her website. 

Previous students often gather at Kindel’s free open studio days to make soap and share techniques, successes, and failures. Their Facebook group, called SoapShare, provides a forum to post photos of their latest creations and offer tips on where to purchase supplies on sale. “Once you’ve taken my class, you are forever a part of my family,” says Kindel.

When some of her students expressed interest in starting their own soap companies, Kindel responded by offering a Soap Biz Bootcamp. The by-appointment, one-on-one course leads burgeoning entrepreneurs through business details like insurance, labeling, sales venues, branding, marketing, packaging, and shipping. About 50 students have taken the workshop since 2016; of those, more than a dozen have launched companies here in Virginia. 

Kindel isn’t concerned about the competition. “We all pretty much do the same thing, but the end products are as varied as the makers and the ingredients they choose,” she says. Those ingredients can include goat milk, beer, Champagne, ocean water, hemp seed oil, shea butter, or coconut oil, perhaps swirled with charcoal, clay, Himalayan salt, or crushed lavender. Every brand is unique, and a soap that appeals to one demographic might not appeal to another. “Handcrafted soap is made in small batches, so there’s always demand for new products and room for newcomers,” says Kindel. “We are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, and my students’ success is my pride and joy.” 

Photo credit Jen Fariello

Carole Kindel and daughter, Kim Midgette

Carole Kindel and her daughter, Kim Midgette

In fact, Kindel says her “crowning achievement” has been watching her daughter, Kim Midgette, develop her own soap brand, filthyclean. “Kim and I definitely bring different skills and preferences to soapmaking,” Kindel observes. “My soap philosophy has always been that less is best, so I’ve kept OD soaps practical and simple in terms of ingredients. Kim belongs to a different generation, though, and she brings her wit, huge creativity, and vegetarian passion for cruelty-free ingredients to filthyclean products.” She notes that the brand, featuring signature scents like Peace Out and Inhale, Exhale, is targeted at a younger demographic. filthyclean was recently picked up by Whole Foods for its Tysons Corner store—a pinnacle in the soap world. Interestingly, notes Kindel, Midgette’s bestseller at Whole Foods thus far is not soap, but her High & Dry Waterless Lotion. “Kim has found her niche by creating things no one else makes,” says Kindel with pride.

Which leads Kindel to share some of the advice she gives to people looking to start a soap company. “You can absolutely earn money selling the soap you already love to make,” she says. “Find your niche, create your brand, and then meet, talk with, and listen to your customers. Be willing to adjust your products when necessary. 

“I’m doing what I love, so no regrets for me,” she continues. “I work every day surrounded by happy people. Soap makers are the most creative, enthusiastic, and generous people I know.” She proves the point by sharing a small bag filled with chunky lavender and lemongrass samples. The ride home smelled amazing.

July 2020: After more than 20 years of clean living, the Soap Lady has retired. Carole plans to post links to some of her favorite soapers on her Facebook page:

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Virginia Living

Jill Devine
I’m a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in human interest stories and business profiles.
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