While your grandmother was threatening to wash your mouth out with soap, Sarah Armstrong’s grandmother taught her how to make it.
As a child, Armstrong spent time on her grandmother’s small farm. She recalls standing in her grandmother’s shadow, following her around and asking questions. She learned new things, from growing vegetables to quilting.
It was the lesson in making soap that has really paid off.
Armstrong now has a growing business called Bad Mouth Soap: Soap for Filthy People. It allows her to combine her soap-making skill with her love of pop culture.
Three years ago, she made a batch of orange and clove soap for her sister-in-law, who suggested to her it was good enough to sell.
“I thought, no one is going to buy a soap called Orange and Clove, there are so many,” she recalls thinking. “At the time I was watching Orange is the New Black, and with an orange and black soap, I thought it would be funny to name it Piper Chapman.”
Armstrong started selling her soap at Dartmouth’s Alderney Landing Market. Soon, Biscuit General Store put her soaps on its shelves. Her products now appear in stores in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Most of the soaps are named after characters from TV shows, movies and music. The Halifax resident, originally from Yarmouth, has a few other soaps inspired by the Maritimes.
“East Coast Hangover is one that everybody wants, it smells like beer, bacon and coffee, and I’m tired of it, but people like it,” says Armstrong.
“I don’t like doing things you can always easily recognize, names can be stupid and too literal. For example, my Breaking Bad blue salt soap is called Tread Lightly, which is what Walter says to Hank in the last season, it’s so badass.”
In Halifax, Armstrong’s soaps are sold at diverse places, including The Independent Mercantile, Heirloom Tattoos and Nine Locks Brewery.
With unique places come unique soaps; there are some that are personalized to the business. Made in the Maritimes, a local business, commissioned Armstrong to make a personalized logo on an order of 500 bars. Dilly Dally Café has soap named after its baked goods, one being the Farley Cookie, known to smell just like the secret recipe.
“Sarah is an absolute rockstar! I would probably sell her soap even if it sucked just so that I can hang out with her,” says Dilly Dally Café owner Laura Draeger. “Her sense of humour and willingness to experiment, taking any ideas that her clients have and turning them into soap magic make working with her an absolute dream.”
For those who love beer so much they want to bathe in it, now they can. Armstrong adds real beer into soaps sold at local breweries.
“It started with the Boxing Rock out in Shelburne. They give me their beer, and I make soap with it,” she says. “I don’t drink so it works out, but people and my neighbours see me trolleying boxes and growlers of beer into my condo, they must wonder what I’m up to.”
Coming up with the scent for the Space Odyssey soap was particularly challenging. Armstrong got her inspiration from astronaut Chris Hadfield when she met him at a book signing.
“While he was signing the shitload of books I asked him what space smelled like. He turned and said, ‘seared steak,’ and I wasn’t impressed, no one is going to buy a soap that smells like that,” Armstrong says with a laugh.
“He told me others say it smells like burnt cookies, rum and raspberries, and so I had it smell like raspberry, rum and almonds.”
As Armstrong tells the story, she waves her hands, which are peppered with scars and burns.
“I’m a sloppy soap maker,” she jokes, adding that the burns are a result of making the soap in her small kitchen. “It heals. It’s not dangerous. You just need to know what you’re doing.”
The most popular soaps in the last year have been Ziggy Stardust, Ron Burgundy, Liz Lemon and shampoo bars.
“Everybody wanted shampoo bars, and I didn’t want to do that,” says Armstrong.
She tried an experiment on Etsy where she sells select soaps, asking anyone if they would like a free trial of the shampoo bars, and after receiving positive feedback, she cannot seem to keep them on the shelves.
“I just got a financial adviser to help me figure out what the next step is,” says Armstrong. “There have been some talks of going large, but I don’t want to quit my day job. This is more of a side hustle.”
Armstrong works full time as an IT consultant and makes soap on the weekends. She says she was approached by a corporate company that promised to bring her product to stores like Lawtons and Sobeys. That would have meant quitting her job, opening a studio and hiring staff, so Armstrong turned it down.
In November, she cut back on her soap orders when her mother got sick.
“This year I’m saying no and not feeling bad about it.”