We like to make our own stuff at our house. We grow our own vegetables, knit our own woolies, and bake our own bread. We believe that old adage: “He who cuts his own wood gets warm twice.” So it was only a matter of time before we made our own soap.
We started with the melt-and-pour type, where all the chemistry is done and you get to do the art part: colors, scents, shapes, et al. Then #1 daughter sent me a book about making liquid soaps with lye and coconut oil. The names were so alluring: “Hawaaian Islands Shampoo,” “Summertime Smoothie,” “Mist Pine Barrens.”
People who have known me for a long time — my mother, The Empress — tried to dissuade me. Activities involving dangerous chemicals and requiring precision seemed to them not to be suited to my temperament. I tried to get #2 daughter to join me in the undertaking. “What,” she demanded, “in our previous association gives you the impression that I would do that sort of thing?” But the glamor of it was upon me.
I asked around among people who knew about lye. A chemist of my aquaintance allowed as how it was better not to drink it. My brother said that, in his experience, it was important to have water on hand in case you threw your machine parts into the vat of lye with too much of a splash. Not intending to ingest or splash the stuff, I felt reassured.
I asked some chemical engineering students. They were scornful. “That’s not dangerous,” they said witheringly. “They sell that in the grocery store.” An eyebrow raised, a bit of a sneer. I couldn’t blow up my house or kill myself or anything? I persisted. They were amused. “YOU couldn’t blow up your house,” they smirked, implying either that such things took intensive training, or that I obviously didn’t have what it took to cause real mayhem.
So I bought some lye. Some oils. I put on rubber gloves. I read the directions very carefully and put the lye into a tall glass container. I added the water. I waited for something to happen: swirling, smoking, maybe a little ominous crackling? In fact, absolutely nothing happened. I went on with the recipe. Still, nothing happened. I was supposed to stir it steadily till something happened.
I do not have any talent for repetition. I am easily bored. So I stirred for a while. Then I went and got a book and tried to read while I stirred (I read while I knit, I read on the Stairmaster, but I couldn’t read while stirring with any enjoyment). I put the stuff in an old crockpot and went off and did something else, coming back now and then to stir.
They tell you soapmaking is dangerous, but they do not tell you how very tedious it is. After four days, I had a lot of rather cloudy soap. I was disappointed. I diluted it, I buffered it, I scented it with jasmine, I sequestered it. It still did not look like the pictures. I was afraid to use it. I had visions of pouring it into the bathtub, stepping in, and ending up with no skin. After a few months, during which the soap in its jars in my pantry did strange layering and produced odd skins on the tops of the jars, I decided to try it to clean my kitchen.
This is not what the soap was for. It was supposed to be a luxurious bubble bath. But I will tell you that it is a most luxurious cleaning solution. Most cleaning solutions are made from detergent, a handy substance discovered during one of the world wars when oils were in short supply. The discovery that something like soap could be made with used petroleum products was a great thing. But detergent scented with Highland Potpourri is not a patch on real coconut oil soap with jasmine oil. If you have to clean, you might as well have something nice to clean with.
I am looking back on this experience because I am thinking about trying it again. I still have lye and coconut oil. It is about time for me to make soap again — I do a lot in the fall for holiday gifts. I have a lot more felting to do, and I have a fancy to use oakmoss soap to do it. And, hey, I didn’t hurt myself last time. Caveman Chemistry (http://cavemanchemistry.com/ ) has a section explaining the chemistry of soap. (There is also a section on fibers). Perhaps with more background, I would be able to produce a nicer soap. Perhaps I will have the discipline to stir more constantly. Perhaps I can talk my boys into helping me, or at least keeping me amused while I stir.
If not, I will at least have more nice cleaning solution.