Soapmaker works up a lather leading international bike tours
By Melanie McGee Bianchi
Despite being a hardcore outdoorswoman who, in her twenties, lived for years in Alaska with no electricity or running water, flaxen-haired Kimberly Masters looks wholesome and fresh-faced. It’s the ideal look for a soapmaker, really.
Her full-time company sells “soap by the slice” in regional and national markets, including in the gift shops of the Biltmore Estate and the N.C. Arboretum, and in various other scenic locales: Alta, Utah; Fort Collins, Colorado; Sausalito, California; and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Masters makes lotions, body washes, and lip balms, too. But it’s the bar soap that distinguishes her business. Vivid as sea glass, the slices are colored by cosmetic-grade natural pigments, such as ultramarine, gold and silver mica, and cobalt. Deep experimentation — what Masters calls “an awesome chemistry project” — achieves the look.
The soap is offered in an array of 50 mixed scents: some popular ones are lavender mint, coconut verbena, white tea and ginger, and Thai lemongrass. All bars are embellished with abstract flourishes or figurative designs. Among the latter are a popular dragonfly motif inside a lavender slice, and a bar with lavishly coiled red-and-white ribbons that nails a candy-cane look for the holidays.
Many designs actually protrude from the bar. “It’s going beyond the square,” explains Masters — actually outside the box. She has a commission agreement with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to make soaps that correspond with the venue’s exhibitions, including a recent series inspired by the famous Gee’s Bend quilters.
It all happens in one room in her heavenly-smelling West Asheville bungalow.
Nevertheless, this double entrepreneur gets grubby on a regular basis. Masters leads multi-sport bike tours for women, everywhere from the Yukon Territory to the Himalayas of Bhutan. Martha’s Vineyard, New York State’s Finger Lakes, and Western North Carolina’s own mountains are other beautiful, if less wild, touring locales. (The groups typically bunk down in bed-and-breakfasts at night.)
Working for WomanTours, a company based out of Rochester, N.Y., Masters and her crew have dodged hailstorms, summer snow, grizzly bears, and navigated passes up to 11,000 feet in elevation. She typically has physical and emotional responsibility for a collection of 12 to 20 women, most of them in their forties and fifties. (Summer tours of Alaska are a particular challenge, since they involve camping and the tricky midnight sun.)
“If I wanted to do it full time, I could,” says Masters. “But I’d get burned out. If I do it six times a year, I can get my fix, then come home, be based in a community and concentrate on my other passion, which is making things.”
Masters grew up in Delaware and vacationed on the N.C. coast every summer, where her family was “constantly sailboat fishing, body surfing, flounder gigging. We were always outside all summer long. And otherwise, we were making things.”
Her mother, an artist, sewed her kids’ clothes, and sometimes Kimberly made clay buttons to adorn them. At UNC-Greensboro, she studied sculptural ceramics but ended up with a degree in business management and marketing. A combination of artistry and common sense has allowed her to rise in the flooded artisan-soap market.
Running a craft business, she says, is “pretty endless. There are always new options to explore with designs and with marketing, more directions to go.”
When she switches gears to go biking, the challenges don’t lessen, but they do become more finite. “I like that balance in my life,“ says Masters. On tour, “we have to keep [the group] fed, meet their basic needs, coordinate activities like rafting and hiking. I’m like the cruise director.”
Some of her clients might be nudged out of their comfort zone by the wilderness experience. But still, the overriding goal, she says, is to “manage their expectations, and keep them safe and happy.”
That happens for a week. Then the journey has an end. Until the next one begins.
For details visit essentialjourneys.com or call 828-350-0395