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Squeeky clean – at least on the outside


Only a down and dirty girl like me could fully appreciate a project focused entirely on efforts to live clean. That must explain why I had such a nice time this weekend at the John C. Campbell Folk School learning to make soap. We’re not talking glycerin soap here, the kind of soap made by melting prefabricated chunks of glycerin soap, adding some scent and pouring it into molds. We’re talking about rendering animal fat and working with lye to make organic soap from scratch. We’re talking about adding essential oils extracted from the earth’s bounty (not fragrance oils that are synthetic) and combining fats and oils, such as jojoba or shea butter, olive oil, lanolin, cocoa butter, and/or bees wax to add texture and lather to the soap, then throwing in herbs, poppy seeds or oatmeal to create other properties, such as exfoliation or ambiance. (The lye actually kills any scent from spices, teas or herbs, but they look lovely in the soap and it does enhance the illusion of scent which comes from the essential oils alone. Who knew?)  We’re talking about adding natural clay to the mixture so the soap draws oil from the skin while coloring the bars naturally. The combinations are endless, the recipes flexible.  Cold processing was fascinating! Decorating the bars at the end to make a pretty display was fun too.


I usually read about any subject I’m going to explore before going to a new class. I feel better if I go in with an intellectual foundation on a new subject so I know what questions to ask, but this time, I didn’t find the time to do any advanced research, so I went in without any concept of what making soap entailed. It was more involved than I expected, but in the best of ways.


When people heard I was taking a class to learn how to work with bees, they said, “Gee, you are brave. That seems so dangerous.” Ha. That was nothing. Bees are small and fuzzy and covered in sticky sweetness.  Now, making soap – THAT is something scary. Because lye can kill you. It can cause blindness, serious burns and if ingested, you die.


To begin, we combined natural lye to water. Instantly the water heats up to 130 degrees or higher, a chemical reaction that makes it seems as if lye has a life of its own. While waiting for it to cool naturally, we whipped up oils, such as coconut oil, olive oil and palm kernel flakes, some of which had to be melted first. These were added when both pots were around 100 degrees.


My teacher kept saying things like, “Never pour the liquid into the lye – ALWAYS pour the lye into the liquid solutions. Otherwise, you can have a volcano effect which will blow up in your face and scar you for life.”


Um… thanks for the heads up. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that, with my memory for details, I’m a goner for sure. Vinegar neutralizes lye, so at least with a spray bottle at the ready; I have a fighting chance at surviving this hobby. This is me handling lye (notice I forgot to put my mask on. Ee-gad.)

I know what you are thinking – this is a good look for me. Yep, I am ever so glamorous nowadays. i should be a pinup for soapmaker quarterly, don’t ya think?

(I wasn’t sleeping at the job – probably just praying the stuff wouldn’t explode all over me.)
 
Each student made two batches of soap, one with goat’s milk and the other a Castile soap. After the first day, it hardened enough to cut into bars. Some people decorated it with oatmeal or herbs crusts – especially when the batches hardened quickly so they were not as pretty as we wanted. That is something that will get better with practice. We were told you can’t overmix, but, um… obviously you can. Our second batches were all better than our first (for looks).


 My friend Patty (married to the fellow who draws Spiderman for Marvel Comics – standing in front on the right in red) took the class as well, and we made a pact to share our batches in the end. We ended up trading with the other people in class anyway, so everyone went home with a sample of scented soaps, each with individual properties. It was a casual class, with supportive new friends that encouraged experimentation while offering creative support. I enjoyed the great conversation and camaraderie. Here are a few of my new friends at the end of session show as we show off our sample trays.


We learned about tracing, curing, saponification, and SAP value.  Making soap is not unlike making wine, heavily dependant upon chemistry and learning about the unique properties each individual ingredient offers. Actually, I thought it was a lot like making fudge. You heat the ingredients to a particular stage, mix, then wait for a specific sign that it is beginning to turn and quickly slap it into a prepared pan before it hardens or seizes up. Soap even looks like fudge, almost good enough to eat. Of course, you can’t even use soap for the first four weeks, much less eat it, because the lye is still so strong it will burn you. Raw soap must rest first and cure before you actually put it to your skin.


I must admit, I really felt disappointed that I do not have a sense of smell this weekend, because so much of making soap revolves around scent. Of course, scent has nothing at all to do with a soap’s effectiveness or how the skin reacts – but people like smelly soap – they are drawn to soap because of its scent now adays because they associate this to luxery. The class spent an hour sniffing the raw essential oils, combining droplets on a card to create just the right, appealing scent to suit their taste before they made their decisions. I watched, jealous.


Patty was my nose for hire. She picked out scents for me. I ended up making one soap with clove, cinnamon and orange, and the other a fresh cucumber scented soap. She made orange and rosemary, and a flowery scent. I tried to marble my cucumber batch by using fern colored clay in a portion of the soap and lacing it through. I imagined this would make the batch look “cucumbery”. It turned out nice. 


Some people liked making smooth, skinny bars. I opted for big hefty fat bars with a rustic look. It was fun watching everyone experiment to create a soap that fit their idea of organic, homemade luxury. It all looked appealing to me, and whether it was left to cure in Pringles cans, in big square boxes or smaller bins, the variety of shapes and textures was as interesting as the diverse recipes. I can’t wait to try all these soaps out in a few weeks. In the meantime, they sure look pretty in the big hat box I brought to carry it home. This is all the soap I made in the class. (that’s cranberry seeds decorating my bumpy bars. It’s a stretch, I know, but I was trying to make it look pretty.)

 


I asked the teacher questions about how to make coffee, tea, and cocoa scented soaps because I was thinking I might make a line of earthy brew scented soaps, lotions and bath salts to sell in our shop. I asked Mark if he thought it was a good idea. He said, “If you love doing this, go for it. Coffee soaps would be a great addition to our store.”

After all, the class also taught us how to bottle, package and market homemade soaps too. Homemade organic soap is a viable business up here.


I thought about his comment later. “If I love it.”
Humm… do I love making soap? Good question. The fact that I can make professional grade organic soaps now is fun, but that does not mean I should do it full throttle. Because honestly, I can’t say I LOVE it.

I certainly know I love learning new things, and this class was no disappointment. I can’t wait to experiment some more at home. I imagine homemade soaps will make great gifts and I’ll probably save a bundle if I start making my own skin products, because I’m a girl who loves bath salts, lotions and the like, despite my “broken smeller”. And I will have a big herb garden next season, so I will enjoy making my own shampoos etc.. because gathering the ingredients from my garden will make it more meaningful – it seems so natural and wholesome to collect things from the earth and put them to productive use. I purchased several books on making soaps and lotions to do more research at home. I’ll no doubt experiment with a variety of homemade bath products. But would I like to make a business of soap making and become a slave to meeting demand if customers enjoy the product? Do I want to brainstorm ways to market something I am making, perhaps having to set up booths at craft fairs to move the product to make the investment of time and effort worth it? Who am I kidding? Probably not.

I’ve learned that I will embrace just about any interest if I allow myself to do so. And I have so many now, it is almost laughable. The thing is, everything takes time, and as sliver after sliver of my life gets consumed by special interests, I notice that the things I really want to devote myself to suffer. I am talking primarily about my writing, of course.

I loved dance. I loved it more than anything, and as such, I didn’t mind forgoing other interests to serve the art well. So many things I would have enjoyed doing were push aside for years and years during my term as a dancer. I was never sorry, because dance filled my heart and soul and it enriched my life in the best of ways. I didn’t need much else in my world. Good thing, because there wasn’t room for much else.

I love writing now. Writing is how a person brings order to the chaos of life. For me, it is how I get to truly know myself. I love organizing my thoughts and defining them, or in cases of writing fiction, I love losing myself in the vast universe of imagination. I love creating characters that personify all I admire in others. I fall in love with them and they become a part of me – or perhaps they are a part of me to begin with, and this hidden element of my personality suddenly takes on a life of it’s own through a designed character, bringing that part of me to the surface. Yes, I love writing and how it puts the world into perspective for me.

I LIKE making soap. I LIKE making wine and jam and keeping a garden and beekeeping and spinning fiber. I LIKE my horses – (no, I love them, its true – they do something for my soul). I LIKE hiking and making jewelry and baking muffins and making gourmet meals . I LIKE all these things A LOT – and I’m good at them. But I don’t love these things enough to sacrifice too much time from the projects I feel are more important to my heart. Knowing this, I must keep it all in perspective. I will make soap for fun because fun (and diversity) in life is important. I will probably have a house full of soap soon, just as I have hundreds of bottles of wine building up. I will no doubt make some soap for the store one day too. I’ll seduce Mark into spending a night helping me scent the stuff (my handicap is a nuisance, but it doesn’t have to stop me) with wood and forest scents, and/or cappuccino flavors. But I don’t imagine I’ll ever decide to commit myself to manufacturing earthy soaps, even if my concoctions sell well – any more than I expect to build my home wine making into the Hendry Valley Brewery. Not that these goals couldn’t be aspired to if I was driven to accomplish them– but home craft production is not something I feel passionate enough about to devote huge chunks of my life to.

The truth is, I am exploring new things all the time, because dancing so long and so obsessively, I became starved for diverse intellectual input. I crave new experiences and can’t seem to get enough now that dance has been shelved. But in the end, I hope to channel all the new things I’m experiencing into written pieces – and unfortunately, that demands time. Lots and lots of concentrated time.  The pie can only be sliced so many times without starved out the diners. So I must be careful with my inclination to embrace a new project with such enthusiasm. Time to slow down and refocus. Time to write more, play less.

But even as I say this, I must admit that I can never go to the Campbell school without signing up for another class in the future. Whether the next endeavor is in 6 weeks or six months, I am so enamored by the creative atmosphere and the non-competitive environment – so appreciative of the wonderful people and the holistic aura of the classes, that I can’t resist committing to one more session. It is as if, by signing up, I assure I’ll stay involved. I don’t want to let life get so busy I forget the important things – to live a creative life, sharing positive experiences with like minded people.

So . . . What did I sign up for this time? Don’t laugh.  Intro to Fly fishing.


Mark said, “Fly fishing? You are so weird. That class will just be a bunch of old men. Why on earth does a girl like you want to take fly fishing? Why don’t you take weaving. You’ve been interested in that for some time.”


I reminded him that everything we learn doesn’t have to be a craft or art related project. I know it seems out of character, but I’ve been thinking about fishing a lot since we moved here.  My dad took me fishing all the time growing up. I never appreciated it much, because I wanted to be left home so I could dance all the time. As such, I felt forced and I didn’t embrace it. I didn’t pay attention to the subtleties of fishing technique – I didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I would have had I just paused to let the nature and my Dad’s company soak into my soul. I think I missed out. 


We live right on the best fly fishing waters this side of America. I see old geezers out there all the time in their wading boots tossing out a line. I am jealous of their solitude, the quiet as they stand in the rippling waters alone with their thoughts. I want to be out there in nature too. Just me and a rod and, hopefully, a fish or two.  (Not to mention, I adore old men. They flirt in the best of ways – they know how to flatter a girl while never taking themselves seriously. Fun. ) Yes, I will enjoy learning all about fly fishing. The week long class will teach technique, how to tie flies, and even how to determine a good fishing spot etc…. The class is in late October, so I’ll be out there wading in the water with other nature lovers as fall leaves add ambiance I can’t wait! I will probably end up signing up for the class on how to make a handcrafted bamboo fly fishing rod  in Feb. knowing me.

The way I look at it, my interests are compatible. I can get all fishy and stinky when I crave a bit of solitude, then I can go home and wash up with my lovely homemade soap.  Contrast makes a person interesting. I don’t suppose I’ll look too glamorous in my waist high wading boots and an old fishing jacket. I’ll wear a hat sporting my hand tied lures, my hair askew and no make-up.. But while fishing, I can write at the same time. I will weave stories in my head, because I’ve found that when I’m out in nature, I do my best thinking. And fishing is something you can do alone, or with others. I can share what I learn with my kids or a friend. Or, I can use it as an excuse to be by myself to meditate on the water.  And fishing (if sucessful) gives you something you can bring into the kitchen too – everyone knows I love anything that leads to meaningful cooking. 

It just goes to show you that when you walk through one door, you never know where it will lead you next. I learned to make soap this weekend, and that will lead me to fishing.
 
Isn’t life interesting? Wonder what fishing will lead too. . . hummm……


About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

2 responses »

  1. Hi Ginny!! You never cease to amaze me… fly fishing??? One minute you’re freshly manicured and perfect with no hair out of place and the next minute your working outside, making wine and soap, and taking care of MANY animals!! Yet, still my hero! Hopefully all is well. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend your breast cancer class when you were here, I had to work. I hope you raised some money! I told Mark that I’d come to Georgia soon for a business expense write off, one of the many perks of the new business. I miss you guys, thanks for the wine and for dropping in to the studio. It means a lot to me. I remember everything you’ve both taught me, I hope to make you proud! -Jill

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  2. Nice pictures; you are looking good! Good blog. Can’t wait to read the fly fishing one…

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