A theme is emerging with these re-skilling workshops: we’re learning to do things that our ancestors used to do, but then society got a little too efficient and now we depend on companies and other people to do these basic things for us. As a result, some of the most simple tasks now seem magical.
For example: making soap.
I’ve lusted after this skill. I’ve read the chapters in Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living. I’ve interviewed the soap makers at the farmers’ market. When Brock and I make pros and cons lists of having livestock on our farm, I always mention soap (from animal fat) as a benefit. But I’ve also watched Fight Club and therefore have a healthy fear of lye. I know that bombs can be made as a result of soap production, and am therefore wary.
So I was giddy when soap-making made the list of Renaissance Women skills, and when Vanessa booked the workshop for July.
Yes, July — I’ve been a naughty, delayed blogger for this workshop, and as a result I won’t be offering the step-by-step instruction that Marnie (our teacher) provided. In fact, since it’s raining today, I’m too lazy to go out to the shed where I now keep my soap-making supplies and get my notes or handouts from the workshop. This will be a high-level blog post. Hopefully you can deal with that.
Step 1: arrive and eat treats
Jenn brought us the most amazing gluten-free cupcakes! The decorative toppings were wild foods: salmon berries, edible weed-flowers, wild mint, etc. Jenn makes the best icing I’ve ever eaten.
Step 2: learn about soap
As noted above, soap can be made from animal fat. But that skill will have to wait for another day, because our workshop soap would be made from vegetable oils: coconut oil, palm oil, castor oil and olive oil. This is the only part of my soap-making experience that I’m uncomfortable with: that the fats/oil component isn’t one that I can produce myself. It feels a bit too hobbyist-decadent to go buy exotic oils, when it’s possible to make soap from byproducts from our farm (aka livestock fat). For this reason, I don’t see soap-making being a big part of my life in the near future. One day we’ll have pigs or cows, and making soap will be a logical next step after slaughter.
Nonetheless, our workshop was extremely helpful in demystifying the process of making soap, which is roughly as follows:
Homemade soap = fats + lye and water + fancy extras
The batch of soap we made at our workshop included lavender water, essential oils, and dried lavender blossoms. When I made my batch of soap at home, I didn’t use any scents but I did add pumice, because we get dirty on the farm, and honey, to give the soap an opague yellow-ish colour.
Another weird theme I’m noticing in our workshops is the variety of tools needed to practice these skills. For example: a thermometer has been essential in both our soap-making and yogurt workshops. The random secret weapon for making soap is a wand hand stick blender (I have no idea what the proper name of this appliance is), which Marnie used to blend our soap. When I made soap at home I didn’t have a hand stick blender thing so I stirred it by hand, then used a hand mixer in desperation, and I still don’t think it was mixed properly.
Once the soap began to “trace” (see the photo below), it was ready to pour into the mould. At this point the lye is still dangerous and will burn skin, although not nearly to the degree as when it’s unmixed.
At the point the soap is wrapped up in towels (deja vu from our yogurt-making workshop) and left to sit for 24 hours. After 24 hours Marnie unwrapped the soap and cut it into pieces, then let it sit on a rack and cure. Well-cured soap (e.g. 6 months) doesn’t get all mushy when you use it: it’s hard and will last longer. I have good notes on this information but they’re in the shed so we’ll leave it at that.
In the end, you have soap that might look like this:
I made this soap in August. It’s been curing in our shed for a little over 3 months and we now keep a bar by the bathroom sink. It’s wonderful soap: it lathers really well, doesn’t smell like icky chemicals, and feels lovely on my skin. It took me an afternoon to make, and we have at least enough soap for a year, possibly more. Now that I know how to make soap, we never need to buy it again. And while I feel weird for using fancy, exotic oils, I do know exactly what’s in it, which makes me feel good about using it.
One day we’ll have animals on our farm, and soap-making will be just another seasonal to-do, along with canning salsa and making dried apples.Continue Reading »