• Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

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  • Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    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!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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A Passion for Artisan Soap

A Passion for Artisan Soap

Written By

Joann Darling

Written on

March 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.

About the Author

Joann Darling

Joann Darling

Joann Darling lives in Barre, in the homestead where she grew up and where today she practices and teaches skills in traditional arts. Her soap company is called Green Sylk Soap Co. You can visit her booth at the Capital City Farmers’ Market.

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