Holy Sponge! Sells Menstrual Sponges And Hand-Crafted Knives, And We’re Here For All Of It
Holy Sponge! founder Janeen Singer would rather give away the recipe for cramp salves than damage the environment by shipping her cramp relief product across the globe. “We can heal ourselves, and I think people need more empowerment and knowledge and connection with plants in order to do that instead of just clicking a button, buying from the shop in California and having it delivered,” she says. Singer’s commitment to cause over cash is among the many atypical elements of her menstrual – she prefers mxnstrual – and personal care company that started on Etsy in 2012 selling an early version of its Ritual Sea Sponge Kit. Today, Singer’s five-star-rated Etsy shop and Holy Sponge’s website sell the most recent version of the kit along with reusable organic cotton menstrual pads it dubs pussy pillows, postpartum bath blends, hand-dyed swaddle blankets, dish sponges and the bestselling Our Lady of Mercy Cramp Balm. Also for sale exclusively on Holy Sponge’s site is the Respect Boundaries Automatic Knife, which features a release button made of abalone. Beauty Independent spoke to Singer, who’s based in Nevada City, Calif., about her discovery of the sea sponge as a menstruation option, how she helps guide potential customers and retail partners through their own sea-sponge-as-menstruation-option discovery processes, bulk herbs, blogger love and the reasons she’s content with incremental growth.
What inspired you to launch Holy Sponge?
I didn’t set out to start a business. Everything that I make comes from my own process toward self-care and self-healing. I had been working in Philadelphia with children and families in a sexual trauma treatment program. I only did that for a year-and-a-half and got so burnt out.
I didn’t have any relationship with plants or nature up until that point. I was about 30 and had a moment where I was like, “I’m done. I’m not doing this prescribed path anymore.” [I went] to spend time with my aunt who lives in California and has always been someone that I’ve looked up to. She’s an environmental activist and artist. My father didn’t want me to be like her or have a relationship with her. I said, “ I’m going to do what I want to do.” That was also the time that I came out after having been married to a man for a long time.
I made the journey to California, and I was thinking a lot about what I put in the landfill versus what I can recycle. Every cycle, [I would] see how many tampons go into a plastic bag that end up in a landfill, and I thought, “This is one thing I want to change.” I read the book “Cunt” by Inga Muscio on my way to California, and she used sponges. I’d never heard of them. I was totally intrigued, but also grossed out at the same time because I had never really handled my blood like that. It was still, for me, very stigmatized and taboo.
I got to Berkeley and found this sea sponge at the store. In the first few months of using it, I became totally obsessed with it. I got excited about my period. You don’t know what you’re missing until you try something that is so much better. I realized how rigid, stiff and painful tampons were, and how they were actually dehydrating. They suck all of the moisture out of your vagina. When I started using [the sponge], I felt so connected to the ocean, connected to my cycle, connected to the moon.
I was telling everyone I met and all my friends about it, and started making the little kits for people. I was taking a break from social work and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been interviewing for jobs, and my friends were like, “Why don’t you just see what happens?” So, I made the Etsy site. It’s didn’t start out with this clear intention [of], “I’m going to go for it and start this thing.” I worked jobs for the first three years since starting on Etsy to supplement my income. Then, it got to a point where I [could] just do Holy Sponge.
How much did it cost you to launch Holy Sponge?
I would say $200. Everything has been incremental. I found a company to work with for the sponges. I found the other elements of the kit and was ordering a little bit at a time to see how it went. I haven’t had any investors. I came to California with $5,000 I’d saved when I was doing social work, and that was what I lived on. It’s been paycheck to paycheck, and it still is because I reinvest everything back into product.
I see other people that are three or four years in, and they’re making over $100,000 on Etsy or online, but they probably have earning goals or it’s not as important about sourcing and doing things in a more ethical way. I’m OK with a little bit of growth and seeing where it goes.
How many products do you have now?
I’ve probably got a dozen. I started making the dish sponges because there was all this leftover sponge matter after I trimmed and shaped the sponges for different peoples’ sizes. I had bags full of the trimmings, and I thought there’s got to be something to with this. The sponge matter is so incredible. It’s antimicrobial. If you’ve read any of the articles about how dirty dish sponges are, they’re dirtier than a toilet seat. Most of them are made out of synthetic materials or materials that harbor bacteria. The [sea] sponge matter wants to be clean. If you’re giving it air and some sort of cleaning treatment, it will air out and be clean. I started sewing the dish sponges, and I love using them.
You also sell a $165 automatic knife on your site. Tell us about that.
My dad is a knife dealer. He retired from his full-time job when he was 70 and started doing the knives. He’s always been into them. He really wanted me to go down to ProTech, his favorite manufacturer in Artesia, California, and do a tour. He said they’re going to work something up for [me]. I went down and met the owner Dave [Wattenberg]. Their knives are beautiful, and the company is totally in line with my ethics. Everything’s made in the U.S.. They’re all highly-trained, highly-skilled professionals making them. Dave gave me two knives that had my logo and the abalone button. I love using them. It’s an exception that he’s working with me. Normally, you have to have a really high minimum order, and they’re really selective about who they work with. He’s trying something new because of my dad.
I realized knives are really geared toward men. There’s definitely no queer audience or plant people audience, and I thought this is a cool little niche market. Women, marginalized people and queer people are getting more fierce. [There’s an] emphasis on boundaries, whether you’re harvesting plants and being respectful of plants boundaries or feeling more confident walking down the street. If somebody fucks with you, you have this knife in your pocket. I sold out of the first batch of 12 within a week.
Where are your products carried?
In LA, Otherwild was one of our first retailers for maybe three or four years. Then, it just kept expanding. I was pitching my product to shops that I thought were a match for the product, but I don’t think I got any accounts that way. Through Instagram, they message me and ask about carrying sponges. That’s how I get them set up. Some shops only carry the cramp balm, some shops only carry the home items, and some accounts carry the kits, mostly. It’s mostly boutique shops, ones that are focused on zero-waste. Herb shops are good matches, too.
Is most of your business done online or through retailers?
It’s 80% direct online through Etsy, and I just got my website shop set up, so I’m toggling both of those worlds right now. I eventually want to move away from Etsy altogether. I get probably three orders a month from retailers. I keep them limited on purpose. I’m trying to explore what it looks like to serve my community, work as locally as I can. I don’t ship internationally, which really upsets a lot of people, but that’s against the whole point. The reason I do this is for the environment and [international shipping] involves fuel, travel and accessibility. I always tell people, “See what natural methods people are using where you live.” Even with the cramp balm, what plants are growing close to you? Here’s a 101 on how to make a salve.
When you think about menstrual products in general, it’s so sanitized. Just like everything else, whether it’s the food industry or medicine, pregnancy and birth, we’ve been taken away from our bodies. We don’t have agency over them or the plants that are growing around us. Everybody’s ancestors were indigenous at some point. So, if they can tap into and get back to some of that knowledge, if people had more trust and confidence, I think we’d be in a better place globally.
“We can heal ourselves and I think people need more empowerment and knowledge and connection with plants in order to do that instead of just clicking a button, buying from the shop in California and having it delivered.”
For shops that carry your menstrual products, how do you handle education?
When I first set a shop up, I give them quite a bit of information about how to talk to customers. Sometimes I do Skype if they’re in another town, and I can’t get to them. The shops that sell the most sponges are the shops where the people who menstruate that work there have tried them. My partner helps me with education and training. Sometimes we go to the shops, and customers are invited to come. They get a kit and learn how sponges work. We also do trainings on the politics of menstruation and the history because, the more that we got into it, the more we realized how sponges have been demonized by the FDA. A lot of companies have been shut down.
With the sales that come through your website, do you have to field a lot of questions? Is it time-consuming?
It has been. Most people I either send a link or troubleshoot with them. I try to be as explicit as I can on the product description. A lot of people who buy either have had a friend who tells them about it or maybe they follow a blogger who uses it. A woman, Organic Mechanic, made a five-minute video opening the kit and talking about it. So, people come over after having been given a bit of a tutorial. We share on Instagram. Most everybody comes from Instagram.
What are some of your short- and long-term goals for Holy Sponge?
I’m trying to navigate how much I want the sponges to grow because it’s not a limitless resource. So, I don’t necessarily want to get to where everybody’s buying them everywhere. I want to continue my education in herbalism and see where that takes me. I’m attending a workshop with Clarissa Pinkola Estés who wrote “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” It’s been a dream of mine to spend time with her. I want to spend more time writing. For me, the goals are tied up with my interest in developing who I am and what I have to offer. I’m constantly refining things. I’m trying to completely move away from bulk herbs and grow or source everything locally, which is changing my recipes. I would like to be at a point financially where I have certain earning goals. I think some of that is [having] different streams of income.
The cramp balm is something that is effective and people love. I get constant feedback about how much relief people get. Some people use it on restless leg syndrome, their necks and backs. That’s a product that I could make a lot of, and I would love to take off.
Is the cramp balm your most popular product?
Yes, totally. Almost all the retailers carry it, and I put it in the kit now to help it reach more people. There’s a famous podcaster and blogger, Hey Fran Hey, she tweets about it every three months. She ordered from me, and it was a large order, and I thought, “Oh, there’s no cramp balm in here.” I didn’t know who she was, I just thought, this person ordered a lot of stuff, and I’m going to throw this in. It was the same month that I did a spell on the new moon about the cramp bomb.
A couple weeks later, I started blowing up on my Etsy shop. There was just order upon order within [this] little chunk of time. I started fishing around and figured out that she had tweeted [about it]. The really cool thing is she doesn’t ever get cramps, but that cycle she had experienced a death in her family. She had a very different month and, for the first time in three years, she had really horrible cramps. [She used the balm] and was like, “Oh my God.” I love the way the universe works like that.
Why is it important to you to move away from bulk herbs?
A lot of them are monocrops, which is really bad medicine. It’s bad for the land. It seems very counterintuitive to be making a blend of herbs that someone’s going to be using, say, just after birth, [for a] postpartum sitz bath from Egypt or Hungary, even though they’re organic. I don’t know who picked the herbs. I don’t know under what conditions they picked them, and I don’t know about the soil health. The more I learn about plants, the more I understand we’re always in some kind of relationship with them.
My goal is to have them be regionally-grown. If not regionally, I’m OK with an East Coast farmer or gardener that’s growing motherwort. Yes, they are more expensive, but I feel good about paying people for time that is important to me. If the herbs cost three or four times as much as they would from Starwest [Botanicals] or Mountain Rose, that can be part of my business expense. I think it’s in sync with people waking up to how important it is to support local farmers.
What are resources for people who want to educate and empower themselves around menstruation?
There’s a really rad queer person out of LA called La Loba Loca. They do a lot of teaching and educating on topics of menstruation. I don’t know if they use the sponge or talk about sponges, but I really like what they’re sharing in terms of menstrual knowledge.
Chris Boble wrote a book called “New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation.” She goes into the movement, where it started and where it’s gone. I think it was written in the early 2000s. She shares a lot of information about the political part, but also talks about different forms of menstrual activism, which was a totally new term to me when I started this in 2011.
Some people get really into the spiritual part of bleeding, and the cycles of blood and initiation. There’s definitely that sacred, goddess-y part. Then, there’s people that are just like, “No, this isn’t sacred. This is just a bodily function. How we de-stigmatize it is by taking away this otherness?” They’re not all necessarily against the sacred stuff, but they’re just no bullshit.
If you could get your products into the hands of anyone, who would it be?
Alicia Keys. I think she’s amazing. I would love to see her using that stuff because she’s already rocking the boat with not wearing makeup and challenging those norms. I feel like she’d be a great person to shake it up. Then, the “Broad City” gals, Abbi [Jacobson] and Alana [Glazer]. There was an episode where they talked about sponges. It was a tiny little part of an episode, but I was like, “Oh, my God!”