Port Washington herbalist Penny Krier has received national recognition for creating soaps and lotions with natural, organic ingredients
Whether it was fate or coincidence, Port Washington native Penny Krier never saw her connection to life as a certified herbalist coming until it had already taken root.
It all began as Krier was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study art and psychology.
“My roommate had an herb garden and when she left school I kind of inherited the garden,” she said.
Krier never completed her UWM degree work, but found a lifelong inspiration in that garden.
“I started working with the herbs and found I really enjoyed it. I wanted to find ways to use them for body care, and ended up getting my certification from the Australasian College of Herbal Studies in 1998,” she said.
Krier now operates Back to Eden, a Port Washington shop that specializes in handmade soaps, balms, salves and lotions largely made from organic ingredients and distilled essential oils.
“I have to be very careful about not making health claims, like they cure something, because that is something FDA is very touchy about,” she said.
“What I can say is it has been historically claimed that the products are good for skin problems, or whatever. I don’t diagnose or prescribe treatments. I say my products are made to keep the skin happy.”
Krier simply invites her customers to try the products she makes in the back room of her shop on 126 E. Main St. to see if they work for them.
Before opening the store, she sold her soaps and salves at the Port Washington farmers market for 20 years.
Krier uses her knowledge of herbs — some she grows herself and others imported from as far away as India — to create unique formulas for soaps and lotions.
Her first effort as an herbalist was a soothing salve made to treat diaper rash for her own children. Its ingredients include bees wax, plantain, calendula flower extract, myrrh resin and echinacea root.
Krier said her calling as a soapmaker gives her a chance to blend the precision of a chemist, the step-by-step thinking of a chef and the creativity of an artist.
“I am constantly saying, ‘I wonder if I could make a soap out of that?’” Krier said.
Some of the ingredients for her artisan soaps are surprising, to say the least.
“I have some hunter friends who gave me some deer fat I used in soap, and I have made bear fat soap,” Krier said.
Her duck egg soap actually does have duck eggs as an ingredient.
“I have also made beer soap for Sprecher Brewing company, as well as coffee and chocolate soap. Pretty much any fruit or vegetable can also be an ingredient, like cucumber or cantaloupe,” Krier said.
“Soap is like a canvas. It starts out blank and you see what you can come up with.”
It can take between six and 10 hours to make a batch of soap, which can yield 10 to 30 pounds at a time.
Some of her products begin to lose their scent after six months, but most have a shelf life of as long as 10 years.
Krier said many of the organic items she incorporates into her products come from vendors she has befriended at the farmers market.
“We are all very close. Every Saturday is like a party,” Krier said.
That same kind of natural rapport led to her working with artist Kelly Kelenic to create her store logo.
“I told her she could sell her artwork in my store if she made my logo,” Krier said.
“Kelly made the logo and also ended up painting this amazing mural at the front of the store.”
As she gained confidence as a soapmaker, Krier became part of the Handmade Cosmetic and Soap Makers Guild, a network of some 700 similarly minded artisans from around the world that she connected with via the Internet.
“For the first 10 years I was doing this, I felt like I was the only one out there making these different soaps and I was very protective about the formulas,” she said.
“Then I learned there are a lot of beautiful women out there doing the same kind of thing I am, and our exchanges can get pretty heated as we talk about our individual preferences.”
Yes, most of her soapmaking colleagues are women, although she said there are some men who take the craft very seriously.
Krier has become so devoted to spreading the word about incorporating herbs into natural products that she teaches classes when the retail side of her shop is not open.
As her students become proficient in the art of soapmaking, Krier said she does not worry about losing potential customers.
“I have found that the more interest I can create in using herbs, the more business I get. It doesn’t matter to me whether I am selling finished products or the raw materials,” she said.
An herbalist cooperative is being added to the store this month, with participating vendors being allocated a shelf on which to sell their products.
Krier said interest in her natural products, and herbal products in general, has grown as people have become more concerned about chemical and artificial fragrances used in many skin care products.
She resists the suggestion that the herbal movement can justifiably be identified as counter-culture.
“I guess it was the New Age movement that resurrected the idea of using herbals in making things like soaps, you know, old hippies,” Krier said.
“But it actually dates back long before that. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers all made their own soap, and used whatever natural products they had on hand.”
Her expertise as an artisan soapmaker gained her national exposure in a chapter of a book called “Naturally Saponified 2” by Daryl and Patricia Gessner, which is available through Amazon.
“Out of 6,000 artisans in our group, I was honored to be one of 26 chosen to be featured in the book,” Krier said.