From Lagom #5

Raising the Bar

Louisa Canham made a bold career move to set up her own company making soaps and lotions in response to the stresses of her career in clinical psychology. She shares her story with us.

Words Louisa Canham

Photographs Elliot & Samantha Stocks

Growing up in Greece, my early memories are imprinted with a lack of detail but vivid associations. Yellow and blue horizons. The sound of crickets. Hot sand and rocks underfoot. And a beautiful array of scents: wild mountain herbs, jasmine, chamomile, citrus blossom. A sensory soundtrack to formative years, which found me much of the time making things. Working with my hands has been a continuous thread, though until recent years it hadn’t occurred to me that this could occupy more than a peripheral place in life. 

When I was 22 I did my doctorate at Oxford University and trained as a clinical psychologist. With a specialist interest in children and adolescents, for over 10 years I worked with traumatised unaccompanied children seeking asylum, young people in paediatric care, kids on the autistic spectrum and with learning disabilities, adolescents with eating disorders, and young offenders in prison. On a personal level it was an interesting and largely reward- ing time, and the perspective-giving experiences of the families whose paths crossed with mine still resonate. 

Nonetheless, being exposed to the vulnerabilities of the human condition can be difficult, and there came a point — particularly after I had my own children — where I found myself seeking something gentle and therapeutic to mediate the impact. 

The summer of 2011 was to offer the seed of what has become. Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, as one is rarely able to predict the significance of experiences in the moment. I was visiting one of my oldest friends — nowadays a harpist living a largely self-sustainable lifestyle on the outskirts of Athens — when she brought out of her larder a tray of gently scented soap that had been cut into creamy, rough chunks. 

I was quite struck by it. Obvious though it is to me now, the process required to make such an item of function and beauty had simply never crossed my mind. Returning to Oxford after a few weeks in the Mediterranean sun, inspired, and with a book on the craft of natural soap-making, I bought buckets, some oils, and, in whatever free time I could find, began to experiment. 

In simple terms, soap is a salt created through saponification — the chemical process that happens when the acids of fats and oils react with a strong alkaline solution. There are many different ways of making soap, but in the traditional cold-process approach, which I’ve used from the outset, recipes are first and foremost made up of oils that are chosen both for the physical properties that they individually lend to the soap (such as hardness, stability, and lather) as well as their skin-care qualities. Under precise temperature conditions, the oils are blended with caustic soda until the mixture reaches a thick consistency, at which point essential oils and dry ingredients, such as clays or spices — also chosen for their function and aesthetic value — are added. The liquid soap is poured into moulds and these are wrapped in blankets to help the hardening mixture maintain the natural heat being generated by the reaction between its ingredients. Within a day, large bars emerge from the moulds and are cut into individual soaps that need about six weeks to cure. This means that the original traces of caustic soda evaporate, leaving each soap a solid amalgamation of its raw natural elements.

I never really thought about going on a course, which would have probably been helpful, as chemistry pursued with a lack of understanding and skill holds many surprises. Perhaps it was something to do with enjoying free, self-led learning after years of formal academic and professional environments. In any case, fascination and instinct led to trials, errors, and successes, slowly paving the way towards the evolution of bespoke recipes and a personal aesthetic. Soap presents maker and user with a rather unique combination of visual, tactile, and olfactory elements, and these independently and collectively interact with its base formulation and primary purpose: cleansing. Inspired by the idea of synesthesia (from the ancient Greek σὐν, syn — ‘together’, and αἰσθησις, aisthesis — ‘sensation’), the synergy of the senses, my aim has always been that ingredients, textures, design, and scent all come together with harmony and purpose.

Returning to Oxford after a few weeks in the Mediterranean sun, inspired, and with a book on the craft of natural soap-making, I bought buckets, some oils, and, in whatever free time I could find, began to experiment.

Late in 2013 I decided to submit some recipes for cosmetic assessment; I was curious about whether they would be deemed safe for broader, and possibly commercial, use. I didn’t have much of a formed plan regarding what to do if they indeed passed the testing procedures. Nevertheless, soon after they came back, having been given the thumbs up, I decided to take an open-ended break from psychology. In 2014 I was joined in what we came to refer to as ‘soap world’ by two of my closest friends: Julia Walker and Virginia Villioti. We set up an artisan studio in the Oxfordshire countryside, and over the course of a couple of years slowly spread our wings, popping up in colourful markets, music festivals, and a handful of local shops. There is little doubt that we made mistakes at every step: we lost many soaps because of equipment inefficiencies and a lack of experience in scaling up batch sizes; recognised with hindsight health and safety shortcomings; and continuously had a sense that we were reinventing the wheel, often with much time and energy spent on relatively insignificant details rather than the greater challenges at hand. 

Working hours were long and most weekends involved markets that were physically challenging, especially during the winter months. However, pure hard graft, alongside the invaluable support of family and friends, led to progressive knowledge and clarity.

As our belief in the organic movement became increasingly established, we developed a close relationship with the Soil Association, and a family-run organic farm that was able to manufacture new products that we worked on—such as liquid washes and lotions — that couldn’t be made safely in our own rustic studio set-up.

Early last year, there was a sense that a crossroads had been reached. Julia and Virginia, for the very best of reasons and in keeping with developments in their lives, took a step back from the soap world, though they remain integral parts of this journey in more ways than one. From my perspective, I felt that the time had come to pick the best of what had been achieved and apply it in a better thought- out, more refined, and further-reaching fashion. What has evolved over the course of the past few months, but is rooted firmly in musings and lessons of a number of years, is LA-EVA (laeva meaning ‘left of centre’ in latin; also Eva meaning ‘life, living one, mother of life’). New individuals have come to enrich this episode, such as Rosie-Marie Caldecott, a budding fine artist with whom we share a common courtyard at the saw mill, where our studios are based, and whose ethereal paint textures now decorate amber glass bottles of new products.

Now recently launched, LA-EVA embodies natural, edgy elegance that is inspired by organic beauty and a love of artistry. For me personally, this unfolding journey is one about experiencing, with awareness, through our senses. It’s about appreciating pure beauty with a sense of depth. It’s a story about celebrating the independent spirit — about creating and connecting with others. It’s about being surprised by life and nature, their chemistry, and their potential. It’s about simplicity, complexity, and the choices that we make — which, sometimes, happen to be left of centre.

Lagom #5 cover

Read this story in the print edition of Lagom #5 along with features on a cocktail bar at the back of a Mac repair shop in London, Riga’s role as a new destination for foodies, Prague’s blossoming specialty coffee scene, and more.

Buy Lagom #5