Emily Fischer sat on the steps of the shed in her front yard at Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, yellow rubber gloves pulled up to her elbows, hard at work on her latest batch of goat’s milk soap.
The two cakes of milk in the pot she stirred were frozen, but melting rapidly thanks to the powdered lye Ms. Fischer shook over them. If the milk were warmer, Ms. Fischer explained, it would burn away beneath the lye rather than turn into the liquid mixture needed to start the soapy process.
Inside the shed was another pot, this one filled nearly to the brim with various oils and chunks of other greasy materials (the basic recipe for Ms. Fischer’s soap came from a book, but she tweaked it by adding components such as shea butter). She used a handheld immersion blender to even out the chunks, heating the kettle over a small burner intermittently to keep things smoothed over.
Ms. Fischer poured the oils pot into the milk pot and kept stirring. Occasionally, she adds oatmeal to the soap mixture, but this batch would be lemon-scented.
Each batch of soap makes 60 bars; the soap mixture sets overnight in a mold before it is moved to a storage area to set for six more weeks. While it’s possible to use the goat’s milk soap before the six-week mark, it will not last as long due to the still-potent powers of the lye.
In an erratic economy, cottage industries play a greater role than ever in helping Island families stay afloat. Like many local craftsmen, Ms. Fischer has found an outlet for her goat’s milk soap at the Artisans Festival, an increasingly important gathering space for Island artists and entrepreneurs.
“The Artisans Festival is fun because it makes me feel like I have a community,” Ms. Fischer said. “It can get lonely working for yourself, so it’s nice to have a way to see and talk to other artisans. The Artisans Festival has allowed me to showcase my soap at an outlet where people know all of the products are made with quality craftsmanship, with all of the artisans held to a high standard.”
This weekend the Artisans Festival will conclude its summer season with a day-long show Sunday at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, a popular event over the Columbus Day weekend.
Ms. Fischer, who is 30 and grew up here, graduating from the regional high school and later earning her undergraduate degree from Bard College, comes from an Island family with deep agrarian roots. With her husband, Doug, a science teacher at the Oak Bluffs School, and their three-year old son, Milo, she lives on the farm that is nestled on a cove of the Tisbury Great Pond. This is no gentleman’s farm, still worked by her father who raises sheep and hay and eggs there, as his father did before him.
Part of her calculus in developing the soap business was finding a way to work from home. “I am a full-time mom and a part-time soap-maker,” she said.
Ms. Fischer is a self-taught artisan who has honed her technique since starting the business in 2007. She and her husband tend a flock of three milking goats, a buck and three kids. When it comes to her soap-making, she admits to being a perfectionist who packages each bar individually, ensuring that the wrapping paper and labels are meticulously aligned. And she has discovered the market for organic soap is growing. In addition to her usual customers, she has received positive feedback from customers who used her soaps during chemotherapy when their skin was at its most sensitive and the mildness of the goat’s milk had a therapeutic effect.
“One advantage handmade soap has over store-bought soap is that most of the glycerin is removed from regular soap,” she said. “Glycerin is a natural byproduct of lye and oils combining, and companies can make other, more expensive products with it. The glycerin in handmade soaps makes them more emollient and beneficial for your skin.”
Ms. Fischer’s workday starts at 7:30 a.m. when she puts Milo in an old red wagon and begins the quarter-mile walk to the goat paddock. During the summer Doug attended to the morning chores, but since the school year began, Ms. Fischer has taken over goat duties. She milks the goats one at a time, gathering two quarts of fresh milk daily (during prime milk season, June and July, she and Doug collect nearly two gallons a day). Milo is wary of the kid goats, who often mistake him for a fellow baby goat and attempt to engage him in rowdy frolic. After milking the mothers, Ms. Fischer and Milo feed the babies. Next, they visit Ivan, the buck goat sequestered in a nearby paddock. The air around him is redolent with the acrid scent of goat musk. Once he’s given grain and water, mom and Milo feed the chickens. When she returns home, Ms. Fischer sends Milo into the care of her sister, Lila, and walks to the soap-making shed adjacent to her house. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. she works in the weathered 9-by-12-foot building, a structure that once served as summer lodging for her and her parents, Arnie and Christa Fischer, while their home was under construction. Two tables in the center of the room are covered with casting molds, ingredients, equipment, and buckets of soap midway through the curing process. The rustic building is not winterized, limiting Ms. Fischer’s work season to May through November. Old fishing poles and random boat parts illustrate its dual purpose as a family storage shed. It is an intimate but productive space, where sunbeams from the afternoon sky often filter through glass bottles lined up along wooden shelves, casting rainbows onto the soap-stained floor. Ms. Fischer blends the soap ingredients on the wooden porch, where she surveys the sprawling acres of the farm that has been in her family since 1939.
Ms. Fischer’s fledgling business has been growing at a steady clip. She made her first batches in 2007, giving some away as holiday gifts and selling the rest at Morning Glory Farm. In 2008 she made 1,500 bars. In 2010 she made 4,000 bars, and she is on track to make 5,000 this year. Still, she said she is careful not to allow expansion to overwhelm her ability to juggle family and business. “It’s mostly about me having time,” she said. “When I’m not a full-time mom anymore, I’ll have more than enough time to make all the soap I want. For now, it’s allowed me to stay at home with my son, find interesting part-time work and earn a decent income. [Artisans Festival founder and organizer] Andrea Rogers does a great service to us by keeping this going.”
Vineyard Artisans Columbus Day Festival is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury on Sunday. The festival includes more than 60 artisans. Parking and admission are free; the event is rain or shine.
Gazette reporter Ivy Ashe contributed to this story.