Drop the term "homesteader" on most people, and it'll likely conjure an image of prairie-dwelling folk in a rustic domicile.
Not so when you meet Heather Thibeault, a licensed cosmetologist, hairdresser and, yes, homesteader, who appears every bit the coifed modern woman.
Thibeault recently led a DIY natural beauty products class at St. James Church in New London, one in a series of new courses added to the 2014 New London Adult & Continuing Education's catalog class in partnership with Thames Valley Sustainable Connections' New London Field of Greens program. The classes in the series - all taught by Thibeault - highlight domestic skills that encourage sustainability on the homefront, from canning and pickling to baking with natural yeast and making your own cosmetics.
"TVSC/Field of Greens wants to bring back the skills that were either passed down within a family or through home economics in schools, which is now disappeared," TVSC president Art Costa notes. "Food preservation addresses some issues around food security in our communities; reducing waste and providing a means of assuring availability of nutritious whole foods not harvested locally during the winter months."
Costa plans to offer more canning classes later in the growing season and hopes to add more baking and whole-food cooking options.
"We have partnered with Gemma E. Moran's food bank and mobile food distribution to provide classes to go with the whole food distribution," Costa says.
A natural cure
Thibeault's journey from salon to stable followed a curiously natural path. A rare autoimmune disease makes her particularly sensitive to heavy metals in the environment. What she describes as a "severe chemical sensitivity" would leave her overwhelmed in, say, the scent-y laundry detergent aisle in the supermarket.
"I could smell the floor wax in a room," she says.
After nine years of toughing it out, she finally figured out how to conquer what amounted to heavy metal poisoning and nothing short of a lifestyle detox was in order.
"I have to (DIY)," she says. "I don't use any chemicals at all, because I can't do it."
That means no hair dye (Thibeault uses henna), no commercial deodorant or toothpaste, no drug-store shampoo and no $50 face creams, among other things. Instead, Thibeault has crafted all-natural recipes for all of the above and more. In creating them, her guiding practice was fairly simple.
"If you can't eat it, don't put it on your skin," Thibeault says.
What began as "dabbling" in DIY beauty products grew into a passion, and in the mid-1990s, Thibeault stopped practicing cosmetology and made a career change.
"The things that I do now weren't very popular with that industry; I moved from that into horticulture and horticulture led me to homesteading," she says.
Priorities and ingredients
Anybody can be a homesteader, Thibeault notes, from apartment dwellers to residents of rural areas, because the practice of it mostly requires a certain set of priorities.
"Homesteading means that you decide what you're going to farm out as opposed to what you decide to DIY," she says.
For Thibeault, that includes her personal care items and much of her food, but she leaves dairy production to local farmers.
"I don't want a cow," she explains.
Bunnies are another story, though, and Thibeault's resident wool-producing English Angora rabbits add fiber to her household's productive output.
One key aspect of homesteading is sustainability, which Thibeault characterizes as those tasks you can start and finish on your property. When it comes to DIY beauty products, sustainability requires a little investment.
"The thing about cosmetics and health and beauty products is there's very little that's sustainable about it," Thibeault says. "However, I will tell you that if you buy your products in bulk, you won't have to buy those products again for years. Once you've amassed a collection of things that you need, you'll be set for awhile."
Thibeault's base-ingredient collection includes things like beeswax, coconut oil, essential oils, rosemary, shea butter and arrowroot powder, among other items. Those ingredients will make a slew of products including lip balm, eye cream, hand cream, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and hair spray, which also features vodka, a gentler form of product-preserving alcohol.
And while the DIY-beauty process requires a decent amount of elbow grease, a good batch of product goes a long way - Thibeault says she makes her beauty products once a year.
She also advises "baby steps" to anyone looking to make the conversion to a more DIY/all-natural lifestyle.
"You just incorporate these things slowly, until they become a part of your everyday life. ... If you have small children at home, start them out with these natural products so they never know anything different."
There are many reasons why people choose to make DIY a part of their lives - it can save money; it's a fun hobby; it's less wasteful. But for Thibeault, the health benefits made her decision a no-brainer.
"If you could just do a couple of things to lighten the load on your liver - it's totally worth it," she says.
Upcoming classes with Heather Thibeault include "Canning 101 - Strawberry Jam" on Monday, June 16, from 6 to 9 p.m. at St. James Church, 76 Federal St., New London; and "Canning 101 - Pickles" on Monday, July 21, from 6 to 9 p.m., also at St. James Church. To register or for more information, contact New London Adult & Continuing Education at www.newlondonadulted.org or (860) 437-2385.
Throughout her New London Adult & Continuing Education class, Heather Thibeault explained the function of some of the most frequently used ingredients in her DIY beauty products. Among them:
Beeswax: a natural stabilizer
Carrot (seed) oil: natural source of healing Vitamin A
Coconut oil: antibacterial and antifungal agent; excellent, deep penetrating moisturizer
Comfrey: healing, reparative agent; leaves often used on wounds as nature's Band-Aid. Applied in oil form or as a salve (just add beeswax).
Lavender oil: antibacterial agent; soothing
Tea-tree oil: stronger antibacterial/antiseptic agent
Rosemary: stimulant, good for circulation, good scalp tonic; Thibeault says rosemary is a good starter herb for anyone looking to DIY
Vitamin E: antioxidant