Allison’s Soap Opera

The retail portion of Allison’s shop where customers can pick out soaps, lotions, and handmade items from local artisans.
06/23/2021
story and photos by Ann Cady

Meet Craft Farm, a new brand of clean in Elmira.

A metal leaf cutout hangs over the door to a small shop in a recently rehabilitated historic building on the south side of Elmira. As you walk in, the large east-facing window floods the cozy space with light, the fresh scent lifts your spirits and the sounds of soft music fill the air. A multitude of plants sit clustered on tables and stands along the edge of the floor-to-ceiling window soaking up the fabulous light. Just inside the door, wooden shelves are lined with handmade soaps, lip balms, cleaning products and the work of local artisans. This is Craft Farm, an exploration in creative and sustainable living – the dream of Allison Duncan.

Craft Farm began life as a garden. Always interested in creating a sustainable lifestyle, Duncan borrowed land from friends in 2015 and started planting vegetables, with a few flowers and herbs thrown in. As the garden grew, she began selling her produce at local farmer’s markets; to add extra interest to her table, she brought along soap she’d made the previous winter. She soon discovered that people returned to her table again and again – not for her produce, but for her soap. “After one farmer’s market,” Duncan explained, “I looked into my cashbox and realized I had made just as much money from my soap as I had from my produce, and my soap has a far longer shelf life than my kale.”

While it was beginning to seem obvious which part of the business Duncan should focus on, the turning point came after she participated in the Elmira Handmade Market, a local artisan and craft show held twice a year at Chamberlain Acres Garden Center in Elmira. “When I first saw an ad for it pop up in my social media feed, I thought, it’s local and affordable, I should just try it,” said Duncan. “I had no idea it had such an amazing following and would become such a great group of fellow makers.” 

Duncan did not always create handcrafted soap. Her first love was blowing glass. After graduating from Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a BA in art history and an MFA in fine art with a specialization in glass, Duncan knew that there was only one place she wanted to work: The Corning Museum of Glass. She had visited the museum while still in college and felt that for someone with her interests, there was no better place to be. Within two years, Duncan had secured a position at CMOG. During her decade-long tenure, she served in a variety of roles including glass blowing instructor, studio technician and special projects manager. 

As much as she valued her work at CMOG, she knew it was time to make a change. She dreamed of designing a business based on the life she wanted to live, a way to be creative every day, and support sustainability and a family. In 2017, Duncan left her full-time job at CMOG to become a full-time artist and maker at Craft Farm. 

At first, Duncan worked out of her home. Using it as a base of operations meant that supplies for the business were spread throughout the house wherever there was room. Occasionally Duncan would order something she thought she had run out of, only to find it later in the basement or a bedroom closet. With a new baby in the house and her kitchen sink doubling as her work sink, Duncan knew she needed her own space. 

After looking for quite some time, she saw an ad on Craigslist for a reasonably priced small space. As an unexpected bonus, there was a grant available for business owners in that section of Elmira. Duncan applied and was awarded the Southern Tier Economic Growth Small Business Grant. 

In November 2020, she opened Craft Farm at 228 South Main Street. “It has been refreshing how Elmira has welcomed my small business,” Duncan says. “City officials were really helpful as I prepared the South Main Street location. Elmira Downtown Development and the Chemung Chamber of Commerce have also offered a lot of support to help my business grow.” 

The space has proven to be everything she hoped it would be. While the first third is a retail area, the rest serves as a kitchen, office, printmaking studio, storage and laboratory. Duncan now has room to make as large a batch of soap as she needs to at any given time, as well as cure it, pack it, print labels, ship orders, store supplies and experiment with new ingredients and scents. 

Duncan uses her own unique recipes for her soaps. She works with both cold process soap that takes about a month to cure as well as hot process soaps that are ready for use right away. Her pigments are almost entirely from natural clays, or plants like alkanet and indigo. While I was visiting, she was testing a recipe for a new gel soap and chopping up aloe from her plant in the front window to use in in the soap she would be making that afternoon. Her much-loved repertoire includes Modern Homesteader, featuring lemongrass, ylang ylang, shea butter and poppy seeds; Herb Gardener, with rosemary, mint, sunflower oil and shea butter; and my new favorite, Babyface, featuring vitamin E and carrot seed oil, designed for her son’s bath time and people with sensitive skin. 

Duncan’s dreams for Craft Farm are not over. She hopes one day there will an actual farm with home and garden on the same property, and space for artist workshops like printmaking and yarn dying – a place to invite people in, to create, to raise her family, to grow things and to have chickens. Visit Duncan and Craft Farm at 228 South Main Street in Elmira, and find select products at Starving Artist Woodwork in Penn Yan, Grist Iron Brewery in Hector, Card Carrying Bookshop in Corning, Desirae’s Creations in Horseheads and Downtown Grind in Elmira. This year, Duncan will have promotional days at the Corning and Elmira summer farmer’s markets, a booth at the Hammondsport Festival of Crafts in late August and an additional craft show in the Catskills over Labor Day weekend.


You can also shop online at craftfarm.co (that’s not a typo), on Instagram @craft.farm and on Facebook. 

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