There’s a memorable scene in Fight Club (the movie, not the book) where Tyler Durden and the narrator hop the fence of a plastic surgery office to steal medical waste-namely, liposuctioned fat. Tyler, played by Brad Pitt, is a soap maker (amongst other things) and believes the best fat comes from rich women trying to achieve a thigh gap. Okay, I added the part about the thigh gap.
As a fan of the film, when I sit down with Christina Silvestris of the holistic skin company Hudson Naturals, I have to ask her, “[Is the] soap making process like the one in Fight Club?” A large laugh escapes her mouth. She says, “It’s exactly like that.”
She’s kind of kidding and kind of not. While she doesn’t break into medical facilities to rip supplies, rendering fat (non-human, of course) is part of the equation. Unlike Mr. Durden, Christina prefers the vegetable variety or tallow, supplied by a farm’s butcher shop in the Berkshires. “The reason I [use] tallow is because it creates a harder soap and it lasts longer,” she explains.
Her soaps are cold pressed and made from a combination of oils like 100 percent unrefined avocado oil, coconut oil or shortening. She adds this to a mixture of lye, water and hydroxide, allowing it to thicken before it’s placed into molds. Afterwards the soap must be insulated and cured which takes three to four weeks. It’s a long process. And maybe that’s why many would-be soap makers give up as quickly as they start. They haven’t fostered the fortitude that Christina has. Taking things slow and steady is sort of her mantra. “I’d like to believe that you need to make everything in a slow consistent way,” she says regarding her process and business model. “I get a lot of orders [requesting 400 items] and I’m like, ‘No.’ I’m not about mass producing…It takes time to make good quality items.”
Christina learned about quality at an early age. Growing up on a scenic horse farm in Wallkill, NY, her mother instilled in her the value of creating things by hand. “She’s the one that taught me to make as much as [I could],” she says. “She’s the reason why I make stuff.”
By the time she went to college to study graphic design in Chicago, she knew how to make homemade jam, sew, and of course, the craft of soap making. And even when she found gainful employment as an art director, she never forgot the skills learned back on the farm. Years later, when her boyfriend Michael Downes, owner of d’AVO Extra Virgin Avocado Oil, was about to discard some product, she saw an opportunity to give it a second life.
“He was selling the avocado oil and working all these markets,” she remembers. “He had a little bit left over that he didn’t feel was up to the consumption level and was going to throw it away. I was like, ‘You can’t! That stuff is like liquid gold’.” She’s absolutely right. Avocado oil is high in Vitamin E, an antioxidant that maintains and repairs skin. “[I told him], we have to make something with this and that’s when I remembered the art of soap making.”
Along with the moisturizing bars, Christina also began making scrubs and lotions. Michael would take them to local markets where they were quickly snatched up. Despite their popularity, however, she didn’t see the business potential until they moved back to the Hudson Valley. She had taken a job at Thornwillow, a letterpress company in Newburgh, NY owned by Luke Ives Pointifell. An appreciator of artistry and craftsmanship, Pointifell’s shop talk often led to conversations about producing and consuming. “He was always telling me about the importance of people making things and not buying mass produced items,” Christina remembers. “That stayed in my head.”
Encouraged by the handmade movement sweeping the Valley and the strong comradery between crafters in the area, she decided to expand her line and go into business, opening her Esty shop in 2013. While many entrepreneurs would be tempted to get their products to the masses at warp speed, she took her time, sitting in her studio to perfect her goods and design her brand. This resulted in a substantial line of items, all in lovely modern vintage styled packaging.
We love the All Natural Lemon Sage Avocado Body Butter ($20), containing organic shea butter, avocado and grapeseed oil. It literally melts into skin, leaving it soft and supple. Ditch chemical filled shaving foam in favor of the natural Shaving Soap ($6). Its coconut oil moisturizes while activated charcoal draws out impurities. For a satisfying lather, try the invigorating Avocado Oil Soap with Rosemary Mint ($6). Its unrefined avocado oil is high in scar reducing and dark spot sterolins. Along with body butters and soaps, Hudson Naturals also produces beard oil, lip balms, lotions, facial toner, and candles. Eco and health conscious, many items feature organic ingredients. No palm products or synthetic fragrances are used. “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t use on myself,” Christina says.
Besides her Esty shop, Christina sells her items at flea markets like The Hudson Valley Hullabaloo, The Phoenicia Flea, and Basilica Farm and Flea. Her products are also carried at a variety of retail stores such as Mohawk Mountain House, Flowerkraut, Soul Farm, and Wave Hill Botanical.
The popularity of her products have not left her with much free time. Along with creating goods and running her company she still works as an art director. “I don’t think people realize a lot of makers have full time jobs,” she says.
Whenever orders become overwhelming her mother lends a hand, helping to prepare lotions or package items. “I don’t know what I’d do without her,” she gushes.
Christina hopes to one day open a shop where Hudson Naturals can be found on shelves, alongside other items from local makers. And while she’s not rushing to rent a space next month, she’s keeping her eyes peeled. After all, she knows that good things happen with a little patience. In the meantime, she’s enjoying the process of growing her brand, meeting customers and other artisans. “I love it,” she says smiling. “And I get to use all the products.”
Hudson Valley based writer.