It only took one batch for soap maker Jill McDowell Lincoln to be hooked on the craft. It was in her genes, though she did not know it at the time. She just knew she had to make more.
As the owner of Bittersweet Soap & Apothecary enters her 20th year of business, she’s expecting to hand-make about 20,000 bars of soap in 2017. She makes them in the basement of her home and sells the vast majority from the brick and mortar she runs off the Historic Downtown Liberty Square.
Her story of soap making began with a Christmas present of hand-made soap from her aunt.
“She was always my favorite aunt. I opened up that package and she had it wrapped in tissue and it just smelled amazing,” McDowell Lincoln said.
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McDowell Lincoln says she was flabbergasted her aunt had made this soap, and just had to learn how to do it herself. This was 1997, before an Internet search could teach you to do just about anything. She finally found a book that described the cold process of soap making. It was a simple recipe with vegetable oil.
“I put it under the bed and covered it up. It’s almost like a ritual-type thing. They told you to cover it with quilts and blankets and you can’t look at it for 24 hours because it cures. I couldn’t wait until the next day,” McDowell Lincoln said.
It was in a shoe box. She had only made about 20 bars, but decided to start selling wholesale.
“I didn’t waste any time. I quickly started selling. That soap that I made in the shoebox, I went and sold wholesale,” McDowell Lincoln said.
“I can’t even put into words as far as the drive I had and the passion I had immediately, knowing that this is what I wanted to do.”
At the time, she was working at Liberty City Hall as a code enforcement officer. She liked the job, but quickly decided she needed to be selling soap instead. She quit her job and after about six months of wholesale selling, decided to open her first shop.
Kansas City resident and customer Heather Whitworth said she found Bittersweet Soap when she was shopping on the square and looking for the perfect gift.
“The first time I came in I was awed and amazed.” Whitworth said. “I was reconnecting with my family and I wanted to take home gifts with them.”
McDowell Lincoln won a long-term customer.
“Most of my customers are my friends,” McDowell Lincoln said.
It was not until 10 years after McDowell Lincoln started in the business that her aunt informed her soap-making ran in the family. “She said, ‘You know you are a fourth-generation soap-maker don’t you?’”
I was flabbergasted. It gives me goosebumps, even now.” McDowell Lincoln said.
While her great-grandmother, grandmother and aunt did not sell their soap, she says the passion must run in the genes as soap making is not easy.
When McDowell Lincoln makes a batch of soap, which is 200 bars at a time, she is working with 50-pound vats of ingredients, some dangerous.
“You have to have sodium hydroxide or lye to make soap, but if done correctly there is none of it left in the final product. As soon as water hits it, it shoots up to 200 degrees and produces caustic fumes,” McDowell Lincoln said. “Soap-making is not for sissies. It is exciting. You have to be on top of your game.”
The name “Bittersweet” also connects her to her family. It was suggested by her mother, who has since passed away.
“Little did I know, at the time, the name would take on a whole different meaning to me,” McDowell Lincoln said.
McDowell Lincoln also has a blog on which she talks about what it’s like to make a living from hand making things. She also hosts a monthly radio show called Jill & Jules on KCXL 102.9fm and 1140am in Liberty, which promotes the Historic Downtown Liberty Square.