Perfume Making Course at Charleston

July 7, 2013


Our approach to perfume making is perhaps a little unusual. As distillers we are as concerned with the plants that we use as the oils that we work with. We believe that a plant is more than the oil it produces and that the seasonality and provenance of the plants is critical to the finished product. We love to travel to the plants so that we can pick them at the perfect moment – through England, Scotland and as far as the Eastern Mediterranean to make our flower waters and essential oils. This is all about small scale sustainable, mindful production. We do sometimes need to buy in essential oils to supplement our stocks, but where we do, we usually depend on our network of friends to supply us.

It seemed fitting that the Charleston workshop started with a distillation demonstration using bay leaves that Holly Wood (the lovely events manager) had picked for us 10 minutes before we started. The leaves were leathery and the buds just forming on the twigs which made for a particularly pungent, spicy hydrosol.

Alembic and miles of hose squished into Duncan Grant's old sink

Alembic and miles of hose squished into Duncan Grant’s old sink

Whist Judith (from Shakespeare’s Sister’s Soaps and incidentally my sister) and I covered ourselves in flour and dough to seal the Alembic joints, the participants introduced themselves and ate their croissants and had their coffee.  We had stipulated a group of 12 and were delighted by the level of enthusiasm of all of them throughout the session.



We split the group into 2 smaller groups of 6 and set about explaining the principles of perfume making with various sheets to read later at their leisure. As the session was short, we quickly moved onto sniffing – each group had 3 boxes; one of top notes, one of middle notes and a final one of base notes. We briefly discussed the scents and then the ladies set about ‘building’ their fragrances. The oils we used were limited to 17 otherwise the task would have been overwhelming. We were so impressed by the open minds of the groups – everyone threw themselves into the task sniffing and mixing for all they were worth – it was a room full of deliciously scented alchemy.

We had a break mid way through to allow everyone a moment to walk outside and clear their noses (and heads). We had also set up a ‘nature table’ with samples of the plants we distil and little bottles of the hydrosols to smell. We also included a tub of Oakmoss we picked in Scotland, some Myrrh ‘tears’ and other bits and bobs we have collected on our travels.


With clear heads and fuelled by more coffee, the groups continued to mix and match the scent they were developing  - some people were clear that they wanted something light and soft whereas others were drawn to much headier, sensual combinations. It was fascinating to watch the process and to hear the discussions between friends about what they were choosing and why. We emphasised the need to record every development accurately so as to be able to re-create the fragrance that they had worked so hard to produce.



Once the scent combination was finalised, we made the perfumes up in the large bottles and the ladies made a label for their work from thin copper. Finally they sprayed their perfume on their arms and we all wandered round excitedly sniffing everyone’s creations. It was a really convivial day with a diverse group both experientially and also in terms of age. I really loved the fact that everyone was so generous with each other and that the final products were so carefully created. It was a real treat for Judith and I to have the opportunity to share our passion for scent with such a lovely receptive audience – lucky us…

Our workshop in September is already sold out but we have agreed to one more on July 13th at Charleston once again – the link is here

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