Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Story Behind the Soap Tote

Early design with zipper closure, piping, short handle and sewn-down font
[I wrote this while listening to Get Storied: Behind Every Product is a Story with Michael Margolis at Etsy Success seminars.]

Before VinAlly, I worked 12 years in the Canadian Oilpatch, using my geology degree to do quality control analysis on geological databases for information service companies. I left that to raise my children. When my kids were still small, I started taking night classes towards a Certificate in Visual Design from the University of Calgary. I had always wanted to get a fine arts degree, and the certificate seemed a good way to get the basics in fine arts. The certificate program  covered all the bases and you really had to work at it to get marks.  The flyer for the certificate actually came for my sister in law, but I knew it was really aimed at me.  Thank you, Providence! It took me nearly a decade to complete as family schedules, and my own chronic illness of fibromyalgia made it difficult to attend evening classes.

Finally earned my certificate!
I first got involved recycling billboards when I wanted to find an inexpensive cover for our bicycles because I didn't have access to our garage. Also, I wanted to have something to show for the certificate  that I just earned.  So, I thought I'd start a small business. I found one of the larger billboard companies had a billboard from their "toss list" that I could have. The first thing I made was a shopping bag, and I am still using that bag today, as backlit tarps are extremely durable. 

[To read the full article, click on Read More below]

The shopping bag was successful and I wondered, "What else could be made with it?" Turns out, a lot of stuff. I thought that I would write a blog about my experiments, since there were no books on how to work with billboards. I fought the thoughts of "Who do you think you are, you can't do that," until those voices were finally silenced by the quantity of posts on my informative blog. My blog is a how-to on how to recycle the material. I learned that this material can't be recycled conventionally. See my previous post. It either covers hay bales or goes into the landfill. Billboards have such great attributes. waterproof, durable and fade-proof. Artists have thought carefully about their patterns and designs for the advertisements, the billboards really should live on, IMHO.
Some of my many experiments

I started cutting with a hand held Fiskars cutter that I could drag over the billboards. Then I wondered about automated cutters which would help me to cut more neatly, faster, and repeatably.  I was intrigued by the Cricut Expression machine, and I was delighted to find that with a certain third party software, I could export designs I created from Adobe Illustrator, and cut them out with the Cricut Expression. [Note: The Cricut Expression machine no longer works with Sure Cuts a Lot software. If I were shopping for a vinyl cutter today, I'd buy one compatible with Sure Cuts a Lot]

One of the products I thought might be useful would be a travel container for soap. Anyway, I knew from being on Etsy that handmade soaps need lots of air so they don't get mushy.  So my design needed to have a way to dry the soap before storing it. My husband suggested a fold out mesh flap that hangs down from the inside of the bag. Thank you, dearest.
An early soap tote design, based on Tide Detergent

I started experimenting with drying meshes from the produce section of the grocery store, and laundry bag mesh from the dollar store. At that time I used three different machines to put them together: domestic sewing machine, a 1948 Singer, and a serger.  The early closure was a zipper and had piping in the seams! So, my wholesale price caused a lot of "silence" reactions from inquirers. I then determined to try and find a cheaper way to manufacture them.  The idea came to me to cut the drying mesh into the billboard vinyl itself instead of having a separate mesh material. Make the machine cutter do the grunt work. The mesh could have lots of design possibilities to go with the style of the font I used, or with the pattern of the tarp.

Early prototype with grocery mesh. That handle is way too short!
My first design was on white tarp. I decided to bevel the edges on a whim to depart from a square shape. Suddenly that bag shape reminded me of my mom's white handbag from the 60s. So it called out for a matching retro font like on Simpson's Sears stores.  Also, the 60s was the era of the decorative concrete divider wall. I decided to copy that pattern for the mesh.  Now I had a Mid Century Modern mini handbag for soap. Style and function together!

I heard a good quote that said you'll make a lot of crap before you start making something good. I agree with that as I look back on my earlier iterations of the soap tote.
A handbag from the 60s

All along the way I have battled insecurity, driven into me from a decade of working under  narcissistic bosses, one of whom was downright abusive. So when I showed the soap tote to some volunteers I worked with, one of them dismissed it with a breezy, "No, no, I wouldn't have any use for that."  I stressed out about that comment for a short while, but I thought there must be a niche for this product, and indeed there is.  Now, customers tell me they use these soap bags for their kids for camping, as a decor object in their shower; for backpacking across Europe. I used mine for an RV trip.  I even sold a bunch of them TO Taiwanese soap makers. Usually their products come our way, not the other way around.  I'm glad I continued with developing the soap tote, because I was right, there was a niche market for them.
The Reactions you Get Sometimes. I exaggerate somewhat, but that was the gist of it.

I was surprised at the gift shop at the airport who didn't like them. Really? working with the traveling public every day and you are selling fancy soaps? I think she made a mistake, there. I really do.

Adhesive Decal scraps from a sign company, in shopping bag number one!
One vendor from another city requested 10 bags for her shop. I suggested consignment as I was grateful to get them into a retail space. Upon delivery however, she decided she didn't like the minor clear glue seepage under the decals, (only viewable at certain angles) and sadly, my consignment deal was over before it had begun. She asked if the glue could be removed. As if! If the glue were to be removed so would the pattern on the tarp. Not possible. More disappointment! I ended up paying shipping both ways.  I ended up selling those bags myself, and my customers didn't mind the adhesive I used, and all of those previously-rejected bags sold with not a word of complaint.  I didn't wish to continue trying with that particular retailer. However, from that experience I sought to minimize the amount of glue I used in making the soap totes, and so  I found through my contacts, a sign maker who had lots of extra adhesive vinyl.  I picked up some from his back alley one day, and popped a soap tote into his mailbox in gratitude. Now all those leftover scraps from his sign shop have a new life on my soap totes. I have taught myself how to cut and apply adhesive decals.  I also started sewing down the Velcro closures after I purchased an industrial sewing machine. So my disappointment at the consignment deal turned into a product development opportunity!

Recently a business owner in my city said that I'd do really well at a certain New York gift show.  I'm not able to to do that at this point, but perhaps in the future.  Until then, my Etsy shop will the place to buy soap totes.  I think these would be great in gift shops, airports, RV parks and soap stores.

The soap tote design, today.

There have been several, non-serious wholesale inquiries at various times.  One said she thought my price points were too high. I lowered them like an enthusiastic golden retriever, got back to her, and never heard back from her again. Typical. No wonder business owners get grumpy. I can take rejection, and its OK to change your mind. But silence, that's hard to take.

By that point, my prices had gotten low that I didn't really want to make them anymore! Listening to a pricing seminar, Pricing for Profit from Etsy Success, gave me renewed confidence to raise my prices up to what a retail store would sell them for, and after all, I am not a sweatshop. I need to price for growth.  Now I am enthused about making soap totes again.  These bags are not just the bright yellow holed-box-with-a-string you can buy at a camping superstore, they are a designed piece of functional art.

I even learned to make commercials along the way.  Here's a video of the soap tote in action, and another humorous commercial.

So that's the history of the Soap Tote!  Now on to the future.  I might revisit some of my earlier designs, since now I have an industrial sewing machine.


  1. soap tote... what a clever idea :) wish you the best of luck!

  2. Awesome, I love seeing how it evolved. Mine is aweosome for travelling. when we go to hotels we don't like the little bars of soap to go to waste so we take soap totes with us. When we are at the hotel we have somewhere to put the soaps and then when we leave there is a mess free way to travel with them! so much better than wrapping wet soap in klenex and sticking them in your bag.