Saturday, 20 December 2008


That sounds like it should be a spell in Harry Potter, doesn't it? Wouldn't that be a good threat, to turn someone into a giant bar of soap with a wave of your wand? Technically, humans can be turned to soap, but only once dead - it's what happens if you undertake (ha ha) your decomposition in cold, wet ground out of the reach of oxygen. Your fat bits will turn into adipocere aka "grave wax".

That's probably not the best way to start out a post about something that's meant to be nice, pretty, and hygienic, is it? But I couldn't resist, especially since having researched the above I have a new goal in life: to visit the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to see not only The Soap Lady (a saponified corpse) but such other amazing attractions as The Big Colon! The Secret Tumor of Grover Cleveland! And a Freeze-Dried Cat!

Sounds on a par with the fascinating but sadly private Gordon Museum, which I was lucky enough to blag my way into whilst a student at King's College London. All the deformed foetuses in jars you could ever hope to see in one place, plus a great collection of stomachs as damaged by various poisons. I don't recall whether our soap-making friend sodium hydroxide was amongst them but I suspect it would have been.

This is not how I envisaged this blog post going. I should really plan them out in advance. So without further ado, on to the soap...

As you can see from the trays above, I made a whole lot of soap at the end of November, after the initial post. I wanted to have enough for general distribution to the knitting group (because fellow crafters know how to express appreciation for this sort of thing), to give to most of my friends and family in addition to regular Christmas presents (and therefore hopefully reduce actual expenditure on real presents), for swap packages, and, of course, to have enough for myself so that our household doesn't have to buy surfactants for personal use for most of 2009. I wanted to have plenty of variety to match scents to recipients, and, given the initial outlay on new pans, silicone bakeware, blenders and fats, I thought I may as well amortise the cost over as many bars as possible. It's all about the marginal cost, people. You can tell I'm an accountant, can't you?

I therefore made six different kinds in the end, ranging from two loaf tins and then some of the first lavender batch, to only five little round ones of the orange batch at the end. I have a much better idea now of how ingredient volume translates to bars of soap, but I don't have that to an exact science yet. Here are the six:

I shall introduce you to each in turn, in the order in which I made them.

Lavender Soap

You've seen this one, back in November. I used the basic soap recipe from The Soapmaker's Companion, to the letter, being coconut, palm and olive oils, plus lavender essential oil, lavender flowers and alkanet root to colour it. The grooves you can see are from cutting it and sort of forcing some of the flowers down through the soft bar on the edge of the knife. Since doing all these six, I've been advised that I'd get better results by cutting with a fine wire like a guitar string. Wish I'd known that before! There's a soapmaking group on Ravelry which has been brilliant for this sort of thing.

Anyway, the lavender soap lathers beautifully and looks very pretty. Lavender seems to be a very popular scent amongst my friends so it's good that I ended up with so much of it.

Floral Luxe Soap

This was the second batch I made. Exactly the same recipe as above, but with sweet almond oil added to the initial oil blend, and grated shea butter added at trace. Essential oils used were rose geranium, ylang ylang and bergamot - real rose being way too expensive. I added three whole rose buds to the bottom of each cupcake mold before pouring in the soap, and I'd hoped that they'd stay sunk so show on the top once turned out. Unfortunately they floated so they are on the bottom instead, and the above bar doesn't look all that special. They've also turned from pink to a more dried brown during the curing period, but still look OK.

This stuff should be incredibly moisturising, but I haven't tried it myself yet.

Marine Biology Soap

My darling's request - he is a biologist, aquatic in PhD subject, although freshwater rather than marine. This came about when he spotted the jar of chopped up bladderwrack whilst we were shopping for essential oils in Neal's Yard, and he asked if I could incorporate them into a soap. Why not? We then went to Holland & Barrett and bought spirulina, which not only provides more microbial content but is the natural green colourant recommended in the books. He saw bags of sea salt and asked if we could throw them in. Sure. I then thought it smelled just a bit too oceanic to be a totally pleasant washing experience, so I added peppermint essential oil for the refreshing (rather than slightly damp) aspect of the sea. I also added avocado oil to the initial mix, because he loves avocados, and it's very moisturising.

It is a bit of a rough diamond, this one. It looks exactly like he wanted - like something dried up and horrible on a rock on the beach. It drops lumps of salt everywhere because the crust is so thick it isn't all properly sealed by soap. It has weird black lumps of bladderwrack sticking out, and the green colouring is patchy, obviously due to some weird reaction of kelp, spirulina and lye. I can understand not wanting to use this. But having done so, it's brilliant! The lather is white, not green, the salt provides a nice exfoliating element if you use that side of it, and oh wow, it is just amazing on the skin. I was starting to get dry patches from the recent cold weather, and this has cleared them up wonderfully. Clean and soft, totally unlike a dead fish. So far, this is my favourite one to use in the shower. If no-one else wants it, then all the more for me.

By the way, some books extol the virtues of seaweed and spirulina as providing lots of vitamins in the soap.  Other books say all that's tosh as any there would be denatured by the lye.  I don't care, I just like the thought of having a shower with thousands of little creatures (each cell of the bladderwrack and each cell of the spirulina being a separate organism).  There's no privacy with this soap!

Lemon & Ginger Scrub Soap

Two new things tried with this: animal fat and layering. Traditionally soap has been made with mutton or beef tallow (look for "sodium tallowate" in your soap ingredients) or other animal fats, so I thought I should give it a go even if I never did it again. Besides, lard is really cheap compared to all the rest of the stuff I've been using, and is actually in the supermarket rather than having to mail order. So this became the regular coconut, palm and olive oils, with added slightly bacon-smelling lardy goodness (seriously, it no longer smells of bacon, but there was a hint during the initial melting of the fat). I did half the quantity on a Saturday night and added only ginger essential oil to it before pouring into loaf tins. The next morning, I did the rest, adding lemon essential oil, benzoin (a natural resin which helps to "fix" lemon scent into soap, as otherwise it's a bit ephemeral), poppy seeds and yellow iron oxide for colour. This is therefore the only batch I've made which is non-vegetarian and with "artificial" additives in the form of the colour.

The problem with this is that I had enormous trouble cutting it on the Monday. It kept sticking and dragging on the knife, which would have been helped by the guitar wire trick above if I'd known. Unfortunately, the drag meant that for a lot of the bars the layers were pretty much pulled apart. I sort of squished them back together and most are fine although I suspect some will fall apart when used. There'll be two perfectly good bars, one lemon scrub and one ginger, but not quite the layering I had intended. I've been trying to only give out the ones that were best stuck together. Apparently (thanks Rav!) next time I could try only leaving an hour or so between layers (so the bottom one is only just solid enough), raking up the surface of the bottom one with a fork, or spritzing the surface of the bottom one with alcohol. All these should apparently improve adhesion.

Manly Wood Soap

This was the boyfriend's initial request before he went off on the marine tangent, because he liked cedarwood when I was asking him to sniff essential oils. I decided to add sandalwood as well and fought the desire to call it the more smutty "Morning Wood".

New thing: an attempt to make Castile soap, which, like Marseille soap, has a base of pure olive oil. Actually, some sources I've seen has it as just requiring a base of pure vegetable oils, in which case everything made already but the lemon and ginger qualifies, but regardless, I wanted a go at pure olive oil. This requires the addition of melted beeswax into the oil, as otherwise it won't generate a hard bar. Otherwise, nothing else added. It is creamy-coloured, pure and lovely.

Orange Happiness Soap

In fact, stolen from the Manly Wood batch above, to indulge myself. During all the various sessions of essential oil choosing above, I realised what the true scent of happiness is: sweet orange. It just makes me feel better. I had to make a soap out of it, just for me.

Seeing as I had some to hand, I grated in the zest of a couple of oranges, before adding the sweet orange essential oil. It is lovely and will cheer me up when I need it. There's not much of it so I'm afraid I'm guarding this jealously, though I may make more in future.

So having done all of the above, let it cure for the requisite four weeks, and tested it to make sure my skin wouldn't fall off and turn me into an exhibit at the Mütter or Gordon Museums, I needed to distrubute it. That would require wrapping in something at the very least, probably some labelling too. And we all know packaging is important, don't we?

I may have taken this a bit too seriously. I went and bought some little brown luggage tabs and a rubber stamp kit. Observe my soap labels:

Aren't they cool? I did do a batch of just "Lucy's" instead of "Ginger Lucy's" for use with those who don't know about the blog (eg colleagues, parents), but if you're reading this, you'll be seeing the labels above.

I then spent whole nights of my life wrapping each bar in colour-coded handmade paper (no, not by me, from Paperchase), writing the ingredients on the labels, and adding ribbons. One day I'm going to learn not to be such a bloody perfectionist.

Here they are:

So the knitters have them already, and I have a couple of overseas packages to go out although they won't arrive by Christmas. If anyone reading this wants one and isn't already aware they're getting one, do let me know and I'll happily send you a bar.

My house smells like Lush, my friends are dead impressed, and my skin is clean and lovely - win!


stash haus said...

The beginning of your post had me laughing. My father's grandfather and great uncle were undertakers - and much of my father's childhood was spent in their home, which was above the funeral parlor - so our humor can be a bit dark.

Thanks for the tutorial. Hmmm, how wonderful to have the house smelling like Lush. Near where I work there is a business called The Soap Opera - divine smells there, too.

emlet said...

This knitter thinks the soap is fabulous! We haven't started on the lemon and ginger one, but the marine biology one is amazing!