Hidden Valley Handcrafts

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At 42, I (Ali) knew I had to kick a 25 year smoking habit before the rest of my life could unfold. A mid-life crisis and a major spiritual transformation followed. At the same time, a friend had lent me an aromatherapy book - The Fragrant Pharmacy, by Valerie Worwood.  I bought a few small bottles of pure plant essential oils and fell in love with them. My respect grew as I had good results using these oils and naturally I began wondering how I could work with them. After our youngest child Jaye went to school in 1994, my partner Smokey began badgering me to have a stall at the Saturday morning Broome markets, still in their infancy in those days. As an accountant/bookkeeper/small business advisor, he knew it would be a great way to develop a little business I could run from home in my own way, at my own pace. I longed to earn some money of my own after years of full time mothering.

"Soap" just kept on popping up in my mind - not the kit variety you make from soap powder, but proper old fashioned, start-from-scratch soap as our great grandmothers made it. I could make soap and add my cherished essential oils (though others advised this would be far too expensive!). Two things happened about this time. First, my father gave me some money, bless him, and I had about fifteen hundred dollars as start up funds for a little business. Secondly, a friend (thank you Kaye) had been experimenting with the sale of different hand made crafts at the Broome markets. In addition to paper, beads, bells, and others, she had tried out soap. She assured me that she had been quite surprised that people were keen to buy quite amateurish home made soap, and would even pay $4 for a nicely packaged bar. She herself had no intention of continuing with soap because it was just "too much like cooking". Well, I was a natural stirrer and lover of soup making, large pots, cauldrons, cups, chalices, witches brews and chasers after holy grails and that was enough market research for me!

I next set off to discover everything I could about home made soap manufacture. At that time, there wasn't much. Just one book by Ann Benson called "Soap" and issue 100 of Grass Roots magazine. The internet was still to come, and I knew of only 1 other WA soapmaker - Corynne with her hand made soap at the Fremantle markets. I bought a few basic utensils, moulds and ingredients. My family put up with the constant messes in the kitchen and the frequent suspiciously soaplike flavours in the salad. Smokey made everything I needed from collapsible trestle tables to trolleys and extra shelving.

This experimental phase took a good 6 months of hard work and determination to stop having irredeemable failures. You have to really love a craft to push through the failures! But slowly soap making came together, along with skin care products I was making for my own hypersensitive skin and also candles, which Smokey took over, making them on our back verandah.

In 1995 Hidden Valley Handcrafts was registered and began trading at the Broome Courthouse Markets each Saturday morning.  It was thrilling to sell about 40 soaps at the first market and to receive wonderful feedback.  There was a point when I needed to make a commitment to this new work and stop being shy about it, nursing it and even hiding it like a new baby:  it was good, useful, ethical, productive, honest, loving work which didn't harm the planet. Within 2 years there was a thriving soap, candle & natural skin care stall at the markets. All the profits during these first two years were plowed back into better equipment and more raw materials including building up an expensive range of essential oils, eventually bought by the kilogram.  We found better and cheaper suppliers. Smokey quit his accounting job to help (this was very scary!). The natural environment of Broome and the bush and beach near our home (Hidden Valley) became the inspiration for the creation of many new soaps and candles. We enjoyed “making meaning” out of our love for the Kimberley, expressing this in soap and other products. Our network of wonderful, loyal customers grew. The feedback about my products was wonderful, especially from local people who have always been my greatest supporters. I marvelled that people were prepared to pay $3-4 for a bar of soap which felt and smelled beautiful and that they knew it was worth spending this money on basic self care. I tried to make my stall a positive place where goodwill and love were exchanged.

Soon we needed more help, and began the rewarding process of employing casual staff. Most of these helpers have become lifelong friends – some have left to have babies or move into their own businesses, but all have contributed very significantly to the success and good feeling of Hidden Valley Handcrafts. We also needed more space, and with help from the whole family we designed and built a “girls’ shed” for production and packaging at our home in 2000.

At this time Smokey redesigned our operations to make them more efficient though still handmade - a new soap cutter made with a boat winch and piano wire, new collapsible moulds and insulation, "rockets" made from modified hot water systems for measuring and warming up the fats and lye. (He exemplifies that wonderful but unsung Auzzie male talent for making something out of nothing.) The picture at right records  a historic occasion - the whole family helping cut our first soap, Full Moon Rising, on the new cutting machine.

Soon, even this new girls'  shed at home was too small, and there was increasing demand for public access. Of course this was illegal at our home, and also we valued our personal privacy.

In 2003, after looking at lots of too expensive options, we bought a block in Blue Haze Light and Industrious Area, so we could have a retail facility and provide public access. We built a shopfront on to the big shed, added a candle verandah at the back, lots of sinks and windows for soapmaking, a packaging and nerve centre, mezzanine office and a Luscious Ladies' Lab.  Again, Smokey did a lot of the work. Around Easter 2004, we opened our doors to the public for the first time.

Today we employ a marvellous and varied team of 4-8 part time helpers.  We have an extensive mail order service, "factory" and gift shop at Blue Haze, and still operate at the Saturday Courthouse Markets. The feedback from our customers has been wonderful and Broome itself has supported us well. Many of our products have come from individual requests or remedies needed for local conditions. Examples are coping with midge/sandfly bites (Midgie Magic) or cracked heels from wearing thongs (Healing Cream or Heel Balm). Our Broome theme soaps and candles have been popular with tourists and locals as well as Broome hotels and B&Bs. The skin care products are now our fastest growing lines, with the release of our  organic skin care range Rejuvenate, after a year of development and testing. This interactive website is now released and we have survived the recession. 

In 2015 Ali started teaching small group workshops for women in the Art of Feminine Presence TM. She teaches practices which have helped her get out of her head and back into her body, increasing joy, presence, feminine power, confidence and authentic wisdom. So she has extended "connecting heaven with earth" to include services as well as products. There's a growing supportive sistarhood in Broome and collaboration between Ali, Monique Le Lievere and Shelley Jordans Russell to bring "Radiance Retreats" (workshops) to Broome people. 

The old cottage on the Hidden Valley LIA block has been furnished and loved to bits to create Magdalena's Cottage, a venue for small (10) workshops as well as individual therapy, massage and healing work. 

Looking back, we can see that the business has grown organically, like a tree, in ways unforeseen at the beginning. It is extraordinarily empowering to create a business and a lifestyle that is extending and fulfilling in every respect.

Ali & Smokey

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