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