Soapmaking–still a useful skill

Lately I keep running into people who want to learn how to make their own soap.  Soapmaking can be an art form, most definitely, but it should also be a basic skill.  After all, up until the last hundred years or so, nearly all housewives knew how to make the soap for their families’ needs.  Even though I make soap regularly and sell it here and there, I would like to see more people making their own.  There’s nothing quite as nice as making your own anything.  So, R, I, and T–this tutorial is for you!  (And for you, too.)

This is my version of a fruit/veggie wash soap, using just olive and coconut oils, based on this recipe from the Soap Queen blog.  It’s a mild, unscented soap, and very simple to make.  Although the original intention was to wash produce, these days I use it as a hand soap. It makes my hands so smooth and soft!

Here are the very basic supplies you’ll need–
I love my Bramble Berry mold, but it’s not a necessity.  For the first several years of soaping, my primary molds were Rubbermaid plastic divider trays and a cardboard box that once carried cups of yogurt.  (Just line your molds with freezer paper, shiny side up or a trash bag.)

Lye

Lye is absolutely essential to making soap–it can’t be made without it.  How else can you get oils and water to blend together and harden into a bar?  Lye (sodium hydroxide) can be dangerous stuff, but with a dose of caution, it shouldn’t scare you away from making soap.  Take bleach, for example.  You most likely have a bottle of it in your house, but you keep it away from children, avoid the fumes, don’t use it on your bare skin and use it strictly according to the directions.  Use the same precautions with lye.  Just wear safety glasses on the off chance the lye mixture happens to splash.  You can also cover the counters with newspaper to make cleanup easier.

You can find lye at many hardware stores, in the plumbing aisle.  Make sure it’s 100% sodium hydroxide; for the record, Draino is not.

Measure as carefully as you can.  You’ll definitely want a scale, so you don’t have soap that won’t harden or the other extreme, soap that will strip the first layer of skin right off….or at least feel like it!

The Recipe

14 oz. coconut oil
8 oz. olive oil
3.5 oz. sodium hydroxide
8 oz. distilled water

Weigh out the oils, either altogether into the pan or separately before adding to the pan.  Melt the oils over lowest heat.  I use a stovetop but some use a microwave.  I turn off the heat before all the coconut oil is melted and let the few remaining chunks melt on their own.  You want the oils melted, not hot.

Measure the water into a stainless steel or plastic bowl (don’t use glass or aluminum.)  You’ll notice that as you slowly sprinkle in the lye and stir to dissolve, the mixture heats up.  I usually set the bowl in a sink containing a few inches of cold water so the lye mixture won’t get too hot and will cool down more quickly.   Stir carefully so you don’t splash and make sure every lye crystal is dissolved.

The lye heating up the water
All lye is dissolved.
When the outside of the bowl is room temperature or slightly warm (not hot) to the touch, you are ready to mix with the oil.  Carefully pour the lye mixture into the melted oils and stir it with a stick blender.  You can also use a whisk, but it will take longer to thicken.

You will eventually notice that the mixture thickens and no longer separates.  When you can drizzle a stream of soap across the surface and it doesn’t sink back into the mixture, it has reached trace.   It’s now ready to pour into the mold.

See the drizzle across the top?

Pour into a mold and just leave to sit on a counter until it hardens.  I usually let it sit overnight (12 hours or so).  You will be able to tell if it’s too soft to cut or pop out of the mold.  After it’s cut/unmolded, I set the bars on pieces of plastic canvas to dry and cure for 4 agonizingly long weeks.  After that, you can keep a bar next to your sink and use it to wash your hands or your produce (and of course, impress everyone with your new skill.)

This is just a basic overview and if you find that you enjoy making your own soap, there are many sites to help you learn more about the science of soaping and how to make your own recipes with scents and colors. 

And that’s it!  You have a way to clean your produce and yourself–it’s inexpensive, you know all the ingredients and you made it yourself!  It’s not so hard, huh?

“Doing just nothing at all” 1879-1898

from 1898– Our life is so active, so filled with excitement, that we are much too little given in these days to quiet thought…there are very few of us who would not be the better for sitting down every day for a half-hour, with folded hands, simply for the purpose of thinking, or of letting the mind lie fallow without much effort at consecutive meditation.

I know how many women will smile when they read this, and will say, “This writer does not know what she is talking about” but indeed I do. I have led for many years an intensely occupied life myself, and I never the world would you have gotten through one-half or one-quarter of the necessary things if I had not made a point of quite often sitting down, folding my hands, and doing just nothing at all

from 1896– A day in which no breathing-space has been found is a wicked day. Not only is it our duty to the bodies which God has given to care properly for them, but it is, moreover, a positive duty to our fellow-man. 

from 1879– People do not know how to divide between the needful and the needless; they forget how minutes of rest lessen the total of the day’s fatigue; how little needless motions, liftings, frettings, increase it.

In the summer, I find that 24 hours a day just isn’t enough, especially when I try to squeeze some sleep into it. (Sleep? How unproductive is that?!?) Yard work, home-maintenance projects, gardening, farmer’s market, and of course, all the fun stuff–camping, barbecues, weddings, sporting events, and the vacations we pack into the 3 month window called summer. “Lazy summer days” have become a thing of unrealistic nostalgia.

 

Maybe they did have maids and hired help to help out with the housework. But, these women were not English aristocracy, they were American housewives who freely admitted they worked hard.

Besides, even with help, these women lived in an era with no electricity, internet, washers, dryers, cell phones… And let’s not forget that most blessed of modern conveniences, running water– they had to trot outside to the outhouse several times a day and there was no such thing as a quick shower or a long hot bath.

If they could manage to fit in some rest, I should think it would be much easier for me to do the same. How rare is it to rest and not do anything? How would that change our perspective toward the rest of our day?  This brings up another question, though. If we don’t have enough time to fit in rest, are we doing things that we shouldn’t be doing or things that don’t need to be done?

Sifting through that thought sounds exhausting. Another post for another day.

 

My Summer in a Garden, 1870- Week 7

I haven’t done a garden post in awhile. If you remember, I’ve been comparing my garden to Charles Dudley Warner’s 1870 garden diary this summer, here and here. Here we are, already on Week 7.

I am more and more impressed, as the summer goes on, with the inequality of man’s fight with Nature; especially in a civilized state.

“Impressed” isn’t the word that springs to mind when I consider the battle I’m fighting and quite possibly losing, but it is rather remarkable. It’s not even a fair fight. What was a tame little patch of lamb’s quarter that rounded out our salads, is now 5 feet tall and blocking the raspberry patch. The growth is staggering; I’m not sure when it happened.

This talk of subduing Nature is pretty much nonsense. I do not intend to surrender in the midst of the summer campaign… (This is written with the thermometer at ninety degrees, and the weeds starting up with a freshness and vigor, as if they had just thought of it for the first time, and had not been cut down and dragged out every other day since the snow went off.)

Chuck really knows what he was talking about, yes sirree. I’m experiencing the same weather conditions here. I’m not subduing, either; I’m simply trying to wrest a few vegetables from an area of ground that has a one-track mind. It’s determined to be a field of quackgrass, lamb’s quarter, purslane and an array of unidentified weeds and I’m putting up a lame fight.

If it’s not a plant subtly trying to conquer my world, it’s a bug. I’ve been hovering over my summer squash (really, squash–of all things!), in hopes of preventing the squash bugs from destroying my crop once again. And now the Japanese beetles have just moved in again. Here they are having their way with my grapes.

In all honesty, I really do enjoy gardening and all the food preservation that comes with it. But there are some days, like after several days of rain, when I don’t feel I’m making progress. To be fair to myself, I’m the caretaker of an additional garden this summer and while I won’t be asked to be a stop on anyone’s garden tour, I’m holding my own on my flower beds for the first time in forever. It IS work, but it’s not all bad. I’d rather pull weeds than walk on a treadmill in public and subject myself to a tv screen blaring drivel any day!

I, for my part, begin to appreciate the value of frost and snow; for they give the husbandman a little peace, and enable him, for a season, to contemplate his incessant foe subdued.

Amen, Mr. Warner. Is it November yet?

Harvesting Wild Grapes, 1907

Recently I discovered an essay written in 1907 entitled “Wild Grapes for Jelly.” The author writes of the summertime treasure that wild fruit can be to the select few who are willing to claim it. She says this about wild fruits, specifically grapes:

They yield their riches to those who know them best and who most desire them. If you have found them, then it is you only for whom they have ripened, a free gift of nature’s bounty.

It sounds romantic–a warm summer afternoon trot to the countryside, filling a basket with wild fruits, which then becomes a shelf of jam to enjoy all winter.

Sometimes it’s not all homemade lemonade and Little House of the Prairie, though. Consider my recent experience. While on a walk last week I discovered an enormous patch of just-ripening black raspberries. I don’t get many opportunities to play in the woods these days so an afternoon of foraging for berries sounded terrific. I exchanged my sandals for tennis shoes and dabbed a touch of vanilla extract on my bare arms and legs (which up to this point had worked nearly flawlessly as a bug repellent) and set out.

True to form, I was so intent on collecting berries that I crashed around the patch, heedless of thorns and branches. The mosquitoes were more bothersome than usual but I reached my goal to fill my little pail.  It was only on the way home I noticed my agony. Scratches and little streaks of blood all over my legs, with itchy welts springing up everywhere. I was able to count 27 distinct mosquito bites (dang vanilla) and something unknown had stung me on the back of the knee. It kept swelling up bigger and bigger and my homemade salve didn’t help at all. So I spent the evening hobbling around with a plantain poultice tied around my knee. No one dared to say it, but I’m sure I looked as much of a wreck as I felt.

Modernism scarcely approves of all this labor. We cannot suppress a doubt as to the economy of expending so much time and care to catch and imprison a few dozen jars of sunshine.

From a strictly economic angle, maybe it wasn’t the best use of my time. But what else would I have done on a Sunday afternoon? Probably something of very little value, like watching TV, or browsing Pinterest, or alphabetizing my cookbooks…(definitely not).  But I couldn’t resist fresh berries, free for the picking.

In theory, we acknowledge the wastefulness of our effort. But in practice, a great many of us go on preserving, year after year. In fact, we really love the close boundaries of home, and prefer the work that is direct and personal to a bigger work…

I can’t agree that it’s always “wastefulness” but in some situations maybe it’s not a good use of time. In spite of the questionable economics, I consider it a successful afternoon. So far, I possess over 2 pounds of black raspberries, a fruit which can’t be bought at my local grocery stores. I’ll use some in smoothies and some in pancake batter, but most of them will be made into black raspberry syrup, which I’ll can for later use. And it will taste mighty fine this winter. By then, I’ll have forgotten how much I sweated picking them during a ridiculous heat wave and my scratches will have healed and my legs and arms will no longer itch.

Breakfast–yogurt, topped with black raspberry syrup and granola

After all, we but take our place in the long line of women who, since cooking was invented, have gathered the fruits of the earth and stored them up for use and comfort. Every year with the ripening of the fruit has this ritual been accomplished, through ages of unwritten history.

And I’ve joined that long line of women and added one more year to that long history.