The gentle art of soapmaking (amateur edition)

I had hoped to show you all pictures of my lovely finished shawl today, but between horrible weather and a horrible cold, I’m in no position to take any decent pictures, and it really is the kind of thing you have to have good light to photograph.

Instead, I thought I’d catch up on something else I made for Christmas presents, which was a bit out of my usual area: soap.

(okay, okay, what actually happened was that I was taking up too much of Roobeedoo’s comment space with soap rambling, so it seemed like a good day to write this :D)

I should start this by saying that for many years, I couldn’t use anything scented or perfumed at all. My skin is ridiculously sensitive, to the extent that I can’t wash my hair in the shower, I buy trial sizes to test my itching reaction before going further, and I’m rather nervous of new products. So the world of perfumed toiletries was rather closed to me until a few years ago, when I started being brave and trying things out.

So needless to say, making my own soap was never high on my list. But having done it once, I’m definitely going to give it another go. I had some citrus essential oils leftover from my toiletry making last year, and so I started to dig around for ideas.

My starting point was this blog post at Offbeat and Inspired, which I can’t recommend enough. The ingredients came from Sainsburys and Holland and Barrett, and I ordered the equipment from Wilkinsons Online – a wide-topped measuring jug, some thermometers, a silicon spoon and some new bowls. My silicone loaf mould was sacrificed to the cause (I’m fairly sure I shouldn’t make cakes in something that’s been used to make soap!), and J picked me up a cheap electric stick blender from Sainsburys.

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Normally craft shopping is a bit more exciting, or at least more colourful, than this…

Of course, being me, I couldn’t just follow the recipe, although for once, it was for practical rather than personal reasons. Once made, cold process soap needs at least 3-4 weeks to cure. I was making it 3 weeks before Christmas. Even I can tell that maths doesn’t work. But I found some blog posts about oven-curing – put the oven on, put your soap in, leave it for 30 minutes, then turn the oven off, leaving the soap in there overnight. As far as I can tell, this worked just fine, and the soap seemed to cure perfectly.

The only other problem I had was that I didn’t start my making until 8pm, and so was using the hand blender at 9pm, and the motor was shockingly loud. If you’re going to do this, folks, consider your neighbours!

Overall, I quite enjoyed making it, although it was a bit nerve-wracking. While there’s lots of stuff about how much fun and satisfying it is, it’s also hard to put the safety warnings out of your head. Don’t get lye on your skin, don’t breathe the fumes, mind your eyes etc etc. Not that they’re not good, but when you’re a rather nervous soul anyway, they don’t do much for your confidence.

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Not shown: scales, rubber gloves, and the goggles I would have worn if I didn’t wear glasses anyway. Only slightly paranoid…

Then there’s the whole mysterious ‘trace’ thing that’s so important to soap making. It’s the point where all the oils have reacted with the lye, and it’s ready to be poured into the mould. The trouble is, if you’ve never done it before and you’re attempting it on your own, it’s really quite hard to tell when you’ve got there. I mean, there are lots of descriptions, and I watched a few Youtube videos, but you can’t really use them when it’s just you and the mixture and you have to get it right. The mixture goes cloudy quite quickly, but it takes much longer to reach trace, and knowing when to stop once you’re out the other side is kind of hard. Given how my soap came out, I’d be more confident next time, but if you’re going to attempt this yourself, I really do recommend the videos as the best guide.

On the other hand, having tried to be very precise about my lye and oils, I did just chuck in all the scents I had, pretty much hoping for the best. I had lemon, orange and lime, and even combined, they didn’t reach the amount I actually, technically needed. I don’t know if I got away with it because I was close enough, or if the sharpness of the citrus compensated for the lack of quantity. But the scent is strong without being overwhelming, so that’s good enough for me, and has me worrying a little less than last time. Instinctively, I feel soap making is sort of like baking, more science than art, but just as in making a cake, there’s enough wiggle room in the recipes that if you don’t get the fringe details exactly spot on, you’ll probably be okay anyway.

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And the results? Creamy, sharp scented, and generally pretty good, I think. I sent the bars around family and friends for Christmas and haven’t had any complaints so far. My mother has even requested more! I think I will make another batch of this soap once I can get some more essential oils, but I’d also like to try making pure olive oil soap. And maybe my own shampoo. And maybe some bath bombs. And maybe some moisturiser.

Well. You get the idea 🙂

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4 thoughts on “The gentle art of soapmaking (amateur edition)

  1. I definitely recommend the book I found: “Handmade Soap” by Melinda Coss. She explains a lot about which essential oils work with which and when to add them, and different base ingredients too. Not planning on rendering down a cow just yet, but fascinating nevertheless!

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  2. Sounds like fun! I have a soap-maker in the family, so I am lucky enough to have an endless supply of fantastic soaps and have a drawer full.

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  3. Hi – I hopped over from Regula’s blog. Kudos to you for making soap – the whole lye thing scared me off – but how nice to have something you know is pure, and custom-scented according to your taste. What little soap I use is liquid castile, which I have found very gentle. Pure olive oil soap is wonderful too.

    Have you ever tried the “no poo” hairwashing method? It involves baking soda and vinegar and is the best thing I’ve ever done for my hair and scalp. (I have sensitive skin too.) There are lots of posts about it out there – here is a link to the one that got me started:
    http://babyslime.livejournal.com/174054.html

    Good luck with the soapmaking!

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