• Crafted and Curated, Everyday Intention, Seasonal Living

    Natural Living & Everyday Rituals with Laura McMahon of The Smallest Light

    05 April, 2018

    One of the intentions behind my online space – both here and over on Instagram – is to support the work of independent makers and producers however I can, as I truly believe that conscious consumer choices have the power to change the world. I’ll be writing more about this idea soon but, for now, let me introduce you to the newest section of my journal: Crafted & Curated. Here I will be gathering stories of people who make and do wonderful things around the British isles – from craftspeople to shopkeepers, and all that’s in between.

    To begin, I’ve got a real treat for you in the form of an interview with small-batch natural candle maker Laura McMahon, of The Smallest Light. From her Welsh home studio, Laura uses her love and knowledge of aromatherapy to create beautiful essential oil blends that are specially crafted to complement the changing seasons. She believes in crafting everyday rituals with nature at their heart, maintaining a connection to traditional fables and folklore, and celebrating every glorious phase of each passing year.

    A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be gifted one of Laura’s new spring candle duos: a perfect pairing of Wild Wood (a warm and earthy scent of cedar, cypress and sweet orange) and Return to Green (a fresh, floral combination of geranium, neroli, bergamot and lavender). I can honestly say that both candles are among the loveliest I’ve ever tried – their fragrances vibrant and evocative, and their effect simultaneously soothing and uplifting. Evenings spent with Wild Wood have been cosy and grounding, while lighting Return to Green before a slow, simple breakfast has helped to set a creative and intentional tone for the day ahead.

    Photograph by Laura McMahon, The Smallest Light.

    Laura’s journey is a fascinating one and her answers to my questions are incredibly thoughtful and inspiring. So make yourself a big cup of tea, and settle in for a few moments of calm…

    Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

    I’m Laura, and I run The Smallest Light from my home in Porthcawl, a little coastal town in South Wales not too far from Cardiff. I grew up in England, but my family is Welsh and, over time, it seems we’ve all been called back to our roots. Before moving here, I lived in beautiful Sydney for six years. This came about after a fateful meeting with a Welsh surfer on a Sri Lankan beach in 2007; he was living in Sydney at the time. It was the best risky decision I ever took! I married him and here we are over ten years later, back in Wales with two little ones, still hanging out by the beach – only it’s slightly colder here.

    What did you do before setting up The Smallest Light?

    Many things! My path, as for many people, has been full of twists and turns. After university I completed postgraduate qualifications in law, intending to be a lawyer. Pretty quickly I realised it wasn’t the right fit for me and, while wondering what to do next, I found a job in legal recruitment instead. It gave me a really solid grounding in sales and marketing and, fortunately, also meant I could transfer easily from the firm’s London office to Sydney, when the time came. But my heart wasn’t ever really in it and, after a few years in Australia, I found myself increasingly drawn to natural therapies. Eventually I braved the step of quitting my job and studying Reflexology and other practices full time. I also found work in the administrative team at Nature Care College, an amazing school that is one of the leading Australian education providers in natural and complementary medicine. Then my life took another turn, and that was the start of a long career break while growing and raising my babies…

    Where did you learn about aromatherapy and candle making?

    I studied aromatherapy while living in Sydney. It started off as an add-on subject, as I was set on my goal of becoming a qualified reflexologist. But the more I learned, the more I fell in love with using essential oils and wanted to continue to know more. While I was studying, I started using oils at home in the form of steam inhalation and making my own natural cleaning products. Now, making blends specifically connected to our seasons has added a whole new dimension to my use of essential oils. I think I will forever be a student of aromatherapy, as there is such a vast amount to learn: I collect any book I can find on the subject and love that my knowledge grows more every day.

    As for candles, I’ve always loved them. For me there is a touch of magic in the ritual of lighting a candle; it creates a spiritual connection for me. The making, though, started out as a hobby. Through becoming more committed to natural living in Australia, I became increasingly conscious of the synthetic chemicals that go into many of the big brand candles; releasing harmful toxins into our homes and the environment. There are some amazing natural brands out there, but my budget was very limited at the time and I wanted to find a way of making my own, with vegetable waxes and natural oils. This was the start of a long process of trial and error over the years that meant studying, reading, attending workshops and refining the making process. I do feel really fortunate that, through this business, I’m able to combine my love for essential oils with my passion for candle making.

    “For me there is a touch of magic in the ritual of lighting a candle.”

    How did you come to the idea of launching your own small business? Was it always your intention?

    I would say the intention – or rather, the hope – of running my own small business was always in the back of my mind. It was a favourite day dream that I kept returning to, but couldn’t see how to achieve. Then, last year, I happened to read a social media post by a blogger who had just had her first novel published, in which she shared her journey and encouraged others to take one small step towards a dream. The very next post I saw was a giveaway for a custom logo design, and I decided to take that first step towards my intention by entering. I won, and it was exactly the kick start I needed – a little nod from the universe that gave me the confidence to start moving my ideas into actions.

    Having taken a long break from paid employment to be at home with my children, I’d reached a point at which I had the time and opportunity to assess what I wanted from returning to ‘work’. I hope that running my own small business will allow me the flexibility to adjust my working life around my family – though the reality of this going forward may be difficult, I know, and a constant juggling act. Having launched The Smallest Light only six months ago, I’m still at the beginning of this journey so I’ll let you know how I get on! I just keep taking those small steps and really try to find joy in the process of building a small business, rather than always looking towards an end result.

    Where did the name “The Smallest Light” come from?

    When I first started thinking about my brand, I knew I wanted something that had elements of hope and magic entwined within it, as well as a strong connection to my own life. I kept returning to a story I loved when I was small that my Gran used to read to me: The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson. It’s such a sad tale, but it fascinated me. The story follows a young homeless girl selling matches on the street – she’s starving and barefoot, and it’s the middle of winter. She only has her box of matches, so she decides to light them one by one to keep warm. With each match-strike she has a beautiful vision, and each one comforts her and gives her hope. So from that story came the inspiration, that the smallest light can bring hope, even in the darkest of times. My wish for my candles is that they bring a little light and hope into people’s homes, providing moments of peace and a conscious bond with the natural world.

    “The smallest light can bring hope, even in the darkest of times.”

    Why did you choose to base your brand around the changing seasons?

    For me, one aspect of living mindfully is maintaining a strong link to nature. Noticing and celebrating the changing seasons gives me a real sense of connection to the world – a way to see the magic in the everyday. I’m definitely not your typical intrepid outdoorsy type, but I do love nature and I was seeking to a way to bring the seasons indoors to harness that feeling and share it with others. I choose essential oils that not only evoke the spirit of a season, but also meet the specific well-being needs of each seasonal shift – for example, scents to boost energy and mood in winter, or to support creativity in spring. By working in this way, I like to think my blends provide a connection to the constantly moving wheel of the year.

    Which season is your favourite?

    I’m an autumn girl, for sure. I was born in autumn, the autumnal blends were the first I created, and I launched The Smallest Light on the day of the Harvest Moon in September. I love the colours the fall season brings, walking on crunchy leaves, and the feeling of wearing a cosy jumper and drinking a hot mug of tea on a cold, crisp morning. There is still a vibrant energy to the season, which can be felt in the drive to get things done before the winter kicks in, but it’s not the same as the busier, hectic energy of the spring and summer seasons – there’s the sense of a gradual slow down. Autumn is the season to reap what has been sowed, enjoy the harvest and be ready for the colder months ahead. I love each season but, to me, autumn feels like home.

    Where do you find your inspiration?

    When I’m making a new seasonal blend, I start by drawing on my own personal associations with that time of year. How do I feel in that season, emotionally and physically? What are my well-being needs? That’s where I start, and then I add to that by researching suitable essential oils and blend testing. I consider which oils have scents that bring that season to mind, which oils will provide certain elements of emotional and spiritual support, and which have been traditionally used in that season. I also spend time collecting and reading seasonal anthologies, poetry, short stories, and a few wildlife and gardening books to give me a well-rounded knowledge and grounding in what other people feel about particular times of year. All these elements are the threads to be woven, and I pull them all together as I go – hopefully creating a blend that will speak the universal language of the season to everyone.

    “I pull the threads together as I go, weaving a universal language of the season.”

    Your candles are plant-based, so they’re vegan and eco-friendly. Why are these things important to you?

    I always knew that I wanted my business to make the least possible environmental impact. Although this inevitably has an impact on profit margins, I want to make a product I’m proud of and can comfortably send out into people’s homes. So, from the start, I have only ever used plant-based wax and pure essential oils: simple ingredients that might cost a little more, but will produce a natural fragrance with no harmful toxins.

    Of course, there is no wax that comes completely free of environmental costs. I choose to use soy wax as, when responsibly sourced, it has a lower impact on the natural world than others and works very well for aromatherapy purposes. It burns longer and cooler than other waxes, giving the oils time to heat and disperse slowly into the air, and it also burns cleanly and is biodegradable. Compared to the toxic output of paraffin wax candles and the mass deforestation and slave labour generated by the palm wax industry, I feel that soy wax is the better choice. I do love natural beeswax candles, however they don’t work as well in combination with essential oils – and using beeswax in large quantities is not only expensive, but could impact very negatively on the bee population.

    What other steps do you take in your business to work with the environment in mind?

    I’ve spent a lot of time researching and sourcing eco-friendly packaging, which fits with the ethos of my brand and works well in a practical sense, too. The Smallest Light candles are poured into glass jars, so once the candle is finished the glass can be fully recycled after use. These jars are stored, packaged and posted in recycled kraft cardboard boxes, which are durable enough to be reused by customers for small storage or can be recycled all over again. I pack each box with wood-wool, which is bio-degradable, and I have also sourced recycled bubble wrap and wrapping paper for postage. It’s a tricky balance to ensure the product arrives safely, while using the minimal amount of packaging possible! I also use all British suppliers for my products, which helps to reduce the environmental damage caused by the transportation of ingredients and materials.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to make burning candles part of an everyday ritual?

    Candles are an ideal touchstone for mindful living and self-care practices. The use of candles as part of our ritual practices has been with us for centuries. The softer quality of light produced by a candle can help us relax, making it easier for our minds and bodies to unwind. Whether combined with taking a bath, sitting with a book, preparing a meal, or any other activity you find relaxing, candlelight will set the right tone for creating a healing and calming space. I would suggest taking a moment to light a candle, slowly and deliberately, while choosing to keep in mind an intention for yourself: a daily mantra, or a wish of happiness for others. Everyone will approach this practice uniquely, according to personal circumstances and beliefs, but once you’ve lit the candle and used that moment to focus your thoughts, let the intention go freely and then take some time to quiet your mind and watch your thoughts pass. Even just a few minutes spent this way each day can be a wonderful way to rest and recharge.

    “Light a candle, slowly and deliberately, while keeping in mind your intention.”

    How do you use your candles personally?

    Most of the time I have a busy, hectic house full of the noise and chaos that kids bring, and I love that! But I know that for my own well-being I also need quiet time for my mind to find the space it needs to be calm and peaceful, so I use candles to create that for myself as a part of my own self-care practices (reading, meditation, writing) or while relaxing in the evening. Given that my candles are created in line with the seasons they also help me to strengthen my own connection to the natural world, to bring each changing season into my home, and to mark natural shifts in the year such as the solstices or special seasonal celebrations.

    What interests you in the idea of slow and mindful living?

    Having lived with anxiety and depression at various points in my life, discovering mindfulness in my late-twenties was a total light bulb moment for me. After building more mindful practices into my day, I felt such a huge positive shift in my mental well-being. This doesn’t mean my life is all smooth sailing and calm waters, but I do feel that mindfulness has given me an anchor to hold onto through the storms. I started hearing and reading about the slow living movement a few years ago, and it’s a value framework that sits so comfortably with my own; even more so since starting our family. I want to cherish the simple pleasures in my life: eating a delicious meal, enjoying my favourite tea, laughing with my friends, taking a walk on the beach – a cliché, maybe, but oh so true! I want to savour the time I have, right now, with my children. It’s not an easy season of life and I could definitely do with a few years of extra sleep, but I am so aware of how quickly this time is passing. By living more slowly and mindfully, and by aiming to bring those practices into my work, I hope I can fully embrace the chaos of life with young children, take pleasure in the good stuff, and learn to be okay with all the messy, imperfect parts too!

    Why would you encourage people to ‘shop small’ and support independent makers and producers?

    Since setting up my business, I feel that only now do I fully appreciate just how much it means for people to do this. Independent producers put so much time, effort and love into their products and, by supporting them, customers not only benefit from their product but contribute to their journey and dream. I think we are extremely lucky to live in a time in which we can choose to support small businesses at the click of a button. Online market places such as Etsy and MicroMkt are helping to create, support and empower a new community of creative makers, whether they’re running their businesses full-time, as a side-line, or as a hobby. From the consumer perspective, this also provides an amazing variety of inspiration and choice: everyone is unique, and our shopping options should reflect that. It’s a breath of fresh air to shop with creative indie businesses and step away from the mass-marketed, generic products that so many large corporations are pushing us towards.

    ***

    You can find Laura on Instagram and Facebook, and shop her range of candles on Etsy. She’s currently taking a break over the Easter holidays, but will be taking orders again from Monday 9th April. If you can’t wait that long and you’re reading this at the time of writing, head over to my Instagram account to see how you could win a spring duo to share with a friend!

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    One comment
    Natural Living & Everyday Rituals with Laura McMahon of The Smallest Light

    • Bren Murphy says:

      As a Mindfulness Practitioner I share simple steps towards living more mindfully every moment. It’s really telling how the connection between candles and being mindful is helpful.
      Deep gratitude for raising awareness
      Bren