Annie's Cameo


Most Artisan soapmakers have been told at some point, "Whoa - that soap looks good enough to eat!" 

Amy Warden of Great Cakes Soapworks has obviously taken that sentiment to heart because her August Soap Challenge - a Brush Embroidery technique - was first used in cake decorating circles.

What is Brush Embroidery? Essentially, one creates a base soap and, after initial saponification (24 - 36 hrs), cuts the batch into fresh bars that must be decorated with piped soap "icing" before completely curing. You can drag a small brush or other implement through the piping to further sculpt a design. Presumably, the water content of freshly cut bars helps the piped soap to adhere better than dryer, cured soap.

As I often say at the start of these challenges: "Looks cool - how hard could this be?" followed by: "How can I make this more difficult?"
(OOPS - did I say "difficult"? I meant..."interesting.")

Amy offered two different challenge categories: the regular category allowed for one color of piped soap, the advanced for two or more colors. However, embedded color in the base soap was permitted, which inspired me to recreate my Grandmom Melli's cameo for the regular category (for the advanced category, an experiment with sunflower and other florals).

Grandmom Melli's cameoMy Italian Grandmother, Annie Melli, was a strong-willed and  formidable figure to me growing up, but I've belatedly learned to appreciate her strength and humor. With passing years, I've also discovered I've more in common with her than nose shape. Our love of family, cooking, singing, and an inability to sit still, for starters. Plus, we're both kinda (ahem) "take charge" types (aka: borderline bossy). But as I've gotten older, I now more fully appreciate the journey past generations had taken to provide the life for us that they did.

Her parents immigrated from Italy, and she met my Grandfather, also an Italian immigrant, in Philadelphia. Her mother died of peritonitis when she was 14, leaving Annie to raise four siblings while keeping house and dating my Grandfather. He gave her this cameo when they were visiting Atlantic City, likely a rare moment that they didn't have all the siblings in tow (seriously - dating with four kids tagging along!). Yeah, they did that.

Sidebar: The coloring of this cameo reminded me of a beer soap I made last year, which you can read about here. I talk about immigration in that post, so skip it if you're triggered by a larger view of the topic.

But I digress... 

I wanted to try two designs, one for each category, both based around embeds. then decide which three bar set to enter (only one category entry allowed).

cut oval embedsFirst, a 1/4 inch thick slab of soap was needed for the embeds, unscented and colored with Moroccan red clay. Half the batch had added spent coffee grounds for texture. After overnight saponification, I cut oval shapes for the cameos and circular shapes for the coffee-imbued embeds. A last minute addition of some mica topping added further depth and texture to the round designs.

different embeds


embeds in raw soapSecond Step: the embeds were placed in a small batch of base soap, which was colored using Indigo powder added at the lye stage. CPOP-ing the batch for full gel for the most saturated color, with lavender and a small amount of grapefruit essential oils for scent. The grapefruit added a touch of yellow tint, producing an intriguing sea foam green rather than the bluer hue I originally envisioned, but still a lovely, soft color which worked for my purpose.

Bars with embeds

Third Step: the color piping. The cameos required no added color or scent, so seemed a good place to start - I wanted to see how long it would take to do the more complex design. I ended up making most of the tiny (4 oz) batches from the soaping 101 recipe (85% coconut oil, 15% OO, 20% SF). It still hardened quicker than convenient while doing the cameos, but truthfully I was taking more time with the individual bars, trying different looks for the woman and the necklace chain. I also had different oval embeds to work with. The resulting cameo designs range from smoothly figurative to more abstract.

(The advanced category floral bars had less issues with the piped soap setting up too quickly, as the designs were more straightforward.) 

Here's how my regular (1 color) category set came out:

Here's a hyperlapse video of how I did the cameos. Apologies for it not being more centered, but you can still get the gist of the process: 

The Advanced Category piping had two colors - a pale yellow ( cosmetic mica) and brown (cocoa powder). I experimented with using the coffee/mica colored embeds as both another design element as well as part of the floral designs. These were created much more quickly - I was able to get five designs done in the amount of time it took me to do one of the cameos.

Here's how the advanced category sets came out:




I ultimately decided to enter the regular category - the uniqueness of each cameo design (and memories of my grandmother) pulled at me more.

Time did not allow for additional batches on this one, but it was pretty fun. Which entry would you have done? When I ran a poll on FB, the floral design got slightly more votes, but eh, sometimes you just gotta go with your heart. 

Annie would have understood.


 - L.










  • Holly

    What a wonderful and unique idea for your design! Really pretty!

  • Lisa Melli Gillespie

    Eva – thanks so much! It was challenging – though fun – to make.

  • eva gomez

    a very beautiful soap with an excellent idea. Very well done! I love them!

  • Lisa Melli Gillespie

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and for your lovely feedback! Can’t wait to see what you entered…

  • Diane (

    Hi Lisa,

    What a nice story with that beautiful cameo, I love that your grandmother was Italian, citizen of my neighbor country. Congratulations to your beautiful soaps and such a nice idea, your grandmother would have been proud and feel honored.
    Best regards from Austria,

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