by Nicole Wines
(NOTE: This is not an instructional article, this is about our own experience learning how to make soap with a teacher. Making soap involves chemical processes and can be dangerous if not done properly. Raíces recommends finding someone who already can teach you and walk you through the process. If you’re dead set on trying it out on your own, remember that websites exist that offer some not so great advice so make sure that you are getting your information from a credible source. Our awesome soap teacher and friend Hayley McHendrey, highly recommends Kathy Miller’s soap making website for all of your soap making needs…thank you, Hayley!)
I “made” soap once. I heated up a block of soap from the craft shop on the stove, added some dyes and essential oils and poured it into pretty shaped molds. It was fun and the soap was beautiful…but I later discovered that I hadn’t really made the soap. I had used “melt and pour”. It made for a fun afternoon with friends, but in actuality someone else made the soap, I just decorated it.
It would be years before I would learn what it really meant to make soap. Last spring, I brought a ten-pound bag of purslane from the Raíces gardens to a friend of mine as a treat for her chickens. I was happy simply to find a new use for this edible “weed” that grows so prolifically between our veggies and greens. Really, taking these plants off our hands was doing us a favor, but my friend had brought gifts to exchange in trade. Homegrown garlic, her first batch of pesto for the year and a bar of handmade, delicious smelling soap.
Hayley’s soap was beautiful, it had a marble design with purple and black swirls. It was too beautiful to use. It sat on my soap dish for show. I kept using my regular oatmeal soaps, for months, thinking I would save my new marble soap for some special time. In the meantime I would enjoy looking at it and smelling it every time I stood at my sink. But the day came when I ran out of oatmeal soap before making it to the store to restock, and there was no choice but to use my special bar of marble soap…and I made an instant vow to myself to never buy industrial soap from the store again.
It wasn’t that it seemed to be any better of a soap than what comes out of those plastic wrapped cardboard boxes. It wasn’t the fragrance or the colors that got me. It was knowing that my friend made it, by hand, with love. It was knowing the ingredients that went into it and where it came from. It was knowing that it wasn’t filled with chemicals that I couldn’t pronounce. I knew that from that moment on, I had to make the switch to homemade soap, I had to learn more.
My Raíces co-director, Francisco, felt the same way. The next time he washed his hands at my sink, he walked out of the bathroom smelling his hands and asking, “Where did you get that soap?”. When he learned that it had been made by someone we knew, he exclaimed, “I have to learn how to make this, let’s do it”.
Hayley seemed as eager of a teacher as we were students and it was no problem to set a date to move on our latest D.I.Y. adventure. She sent us a list of supplies we would need to bring: olive oil, safety goggles, an apron and thick kitchen gloves. She had already ordered bulk buckets of coconut and palm oil and sodium hydroxide (or lye). We would be making cold process soap, saponifying oils using a complex chemical reaction, or creating a salt out of our mix of fatty acids (the oils) by the adding of a base (the lye). This is one of several processes for making soap. Other processes include hot process and fully boiled process. The cold process is one of the simplest and is called cold process because the chemical reactions that occur do so without the use of heat.
The steps seemed very simple, but had to be done with care. Measuring out, mixing and cooling the lye with water (we did not make our own lye, but that is on our list of D.I.Y. projects for the future), measuring and melting the congealed oils, lining the molds, blending the lye into the oils until it was the perfect consistency (done by eye of course or as we say at Raíces “ojo de buen cubero”), adding minerals and essential oils for color and fragrance, pouring our soap into the molds and wrapping them up in blankets to hold the heat of the chemical reaction took up an entire afternoon-half a day’s work for three ten-pound batches of soap. Half a day of working with a smile, knowing that after a just few weeks of curing we would have enough handmade soap to last ourselves and our families for months.
We were hooked. Now I would take my vow to not buy industrial soap one step further, I would make it myself from now on, with natural ingredients, essential oils, and natural coloring agents. No surprise ingredients, no chemicals in the finished product (the lye is gone once the saponification process is complete), no separate packaging around each bar.
After meeting with our teacher Hayley again to cut the batches into bars and seeing the swirls of color hiding inside, I was so excited to start using our Raíces soap, but was told we had to wait another four weeks for the soap to dry, cure and harden. It was a rough wait, smelling the scents of the essential oils while rehearsing next to a table filled with standing bars of soap. It was well worth the wait though, now that we know where our soap comes from and how it is made, getting clean has never been so much fun.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Kathy Miller’s Soap Page
MORE PHOTOS FROM OUR DAY OF SOAPMAKING
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