A Passion for Artisan Soap
Written onMarch 01 , 2013
My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!
How are handmade soaps made? I’ll spare you the detailed chemistry lesson and just give an overview. Soap is formed through the hydrolysis of an oil or fat in an alkaline solution.
The chemical reaction that occurs is called saponification, and the products that result are glycerol and fatty acid salts. The alkaline solution can come from any of the following sources: potash (potassium carbonate) leached from the ash of woody plants; soda ash (sodium carbonate) leached from the ashes of saltwater plants; and sodium or potassium hydroxide from a reaction with soda or potash and lime (calcium oxide). The oil or fat can come from either vegetable sources, such as olive oil, or animal sources, such as beef tallow or pork lard.
Once the soap has been thoroughly blended, essential oils and powdered herbs can be added. Then the mixture is poured into wooden moulds to set. For the soaps I sell, I like to use herbs I grow myself. One of my favorites for adding to soap would have to be lavender (Lavendula angustifolia); it’s one of the most well-loved scents with its calming and relaxing effects, and is gender neutral. I also enjoy growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) for its fresh and uplifting fragrance.
After 48 hours, the soap is firm enough to cut into bars, and they will take an additional six weeks to fully cure and dry. In addition to using my own herbs, I have lately been calling local wild game processors to obtain bear fat and deer tallow, and have plans to expand into shampoos for people and pets using sunflower oil produced in Vermont.
Soap issuch an omnipresent word that no matter what language you speak or continent you’re on, no further explanation is needed—or is there? In the Dictionaire Oeconomique of 1750, soap is defined as:
…a composition of Oil of oliancientve, lime and ashes of the Herb Kali or Saltwort (Salsola kali); the chief use is to wash and clean Linnen. There are two sorts there of, which are distinguished by their colour, viz. White and Black
That’s quite specific as to ingredients and use! What excites me most about producing handmade soap is that I feel connected to an ancient tradition that seems to never be out of style—or at least is resistant to being forgotten. Regardless of what “soap” was originally made of or used for, I am glad our ancestors realized its value and embraced the craft.
The origins of soap are said to reach as far back as 2800 BC, when concoctions of ash and fats appear on Sumerians’ clay tablets. Pliny the Elder of Rome, in the Historiae Naturalis, lists a medicinal soap-like recipe, using goat grease and spruce ash, to treat skin disorders. There is also a beautiful Roman legend that attributes the discovery of soap to the goddess Athena. It tells of how women washing clothes below Mount Sapo (Sapo Hill) one day noticed the ease with which the clothing became clean, and that there was an odd occurrence of foam along the riverbank. On Sapo Hill there was a temple to Athena where people often made animal sacrifices, and the ash and fat that accumulated produced a crude soap-like substance that washed down the hill and eventually into the river below. Somehow they connected the foam to cleaner clothes?
At least by the first century we have a sense that a soap-like substance was being made and used. The best and most identifiable account of soap production can be found in a 12th-century Italian book, Mappae Clavicula: A Key to the World of Medieval Techniques. The following is an English translation from its original Latin prose:
#280 How Soap is made from Olive oil or Tallow
Spread well burnt ashes from good logs over woven wickerwork made of tiny withies, or on a thin-meshed strong sieve, and gently pour hot water on them so that it goes through drop by drop. Collect the lye in a clean pot underneath and strain it two or three times through the same ashes, so that the lye becomes strong and coloured. This is the first lye of the soap maker. After it has clarified well let it cook, and when it has boiled for a long time and has begun to thicken, add enough oil and stir well. Now, if you want to make lye with lime, put a little good lime in it, let the above mentioned lye boil by itself until it is cooked down and reduced to thickness. Afterwards, allow to cool in a suitable place whatever has remained there of the lye or watery stuff. This clarification is called the second lye of the soap maker. Afterwards, work [the soap] with a little spade for 2, 3 or 4 days, so that it coagulates well and is dewatered, and lay it aside for use. If you want to make [your soap] out of tallow the process will be the same, though instead of oil put well-beaten beef tallow and a little wheat flour according to your judgment, and let them cook to thickness as was said above. Now put some salt in the second lye that I mentioned and cook it until it dries out, and this will be the afronitrum for soldering.
One could not successfully create soap (at least what we consider soap today) from this recipe found in the Mappae Clavicula without going through a lot of trial and error, and wasted ingredients. (And what exactly is “woven wickerwork made of tiny withies?”) Back then, the trade/craft/art of soap making would have best been learned through an apprenticeship with a “master” soap-boiler.
Thankfully, today one can find many wonderful books about handcrafting soap, such as The Complete Soapmaker, by Norma Coney;Handcrafted Soap, by North Light Books; and Susan Miller Cavitch’s The Soap Makers Companion. The tradition and skill of crafting soap continues today among those who produce handmade soap using natural oils, fats and additives.
What do I mean when I say handmade soap? It would be, but not limited to, a soap produced with oils or fats in their true form (not synthesized), and one that would also embrace natural additives such as honey versus processed sugar. This soap would also contain all of the natural glycerol produced during the saponification process. (I’ve been told that some commercial soap companies sell the glycerol as a byproduct—too bad, as glycerin is what gives soap its moisturizing quality.)
Soap making for me will always be a craft and an art. From the moment I used my first bar of handmade soap, I was hooked. Nothing could be better than a warm bath with the alluring fragrance of a thousand blossoms encapsulated in the creamy lather of homemade soap.