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Scents of Pride

From yesteryear pioneer chore to modern day artisanal adventure, soapmaking is inspiring handmade movement enthusiasts and soaping entrepreneurs — one batch at a time.

Jennifer Zehnder
October 28, 2018

Once upon a time, soapmaking was just another homestead task carried out by frontier families who tended to wood-fired cauldrons filled with a mixture of rendered lard or tallow, water, and wood-ash lye. As noted in Colonial Soapmaking — Its History and Techniques by Marietta and Arthur Ellis, soapmaking was often a seasonal affair timed around the fall butchering of food animals when resources were plentiful. On farms where butchering was not done, it was a spring effort that utilized winter ash and accumulated cooking grease waste.

Today, thanks to modern manufacturing and distribution, access to a bar of soap is not nearly as labor intensive. However, some are rethinking the true cost of automation and convenience and opting for a handmade alternative — where the connection between craft and maker are not so distant. In the article, “Why Handmade Matters,” author Donna Maria Coles Johnson contends that handmade is the new American manufacturing — one that gives value to creative spirit; where items are handcrafted in an environment of joy, honor, and respect. These items can’t be duplicated and bring with them more beauty when crafted with heart. Such is the lure of soapmaking as technology gives folks both awareness of and access to handmade possibilities — makers, mentors, enthusiasts, ingredient suppliers, and future clientele.

For many, soapmaking offers a unique mix of chemistry and creativity.
For many, soapmaking offers a unique mix of chemistry and creativity.

It was love at first sight for Cody Miller when she saw the handmade soaps at a local boutique. The Tahlequah native was smitten with how unique and artistic these everyday products could be, and made it a goal to learn the craft. A short year later, Miller had a newfound appreciation for the art of soapmaking, as well as the start of a creative and profitable side gig.

“I started researching soapmaking online and bought a few things at a time until I could finally make my first batch. I began sharing my soaps with family and friends. They all loved them, and soon I was getting messages asking when my next batch would be ready,” she says. “So, I decided to continue making it and have turned it into a business — Cherokee Crow Soapery.”

For many, soapmaking offers a unique mix of chemistry and creativity. For true soapmakers, there are two definitive methods — cold process and hot process. A mixture of an alkali (lye), liquid (distilled water, Aloe Vera juice, goat’s milk, etc.), and base (oils, fats) is used in cold process soapmaking. The chemical reaction that occurs when these ingredients are combined is called saponification, or making of soap. Once the mixture is saponified, it is no longer oils, fats and lye, but soap. In hot process soapmaking, heat is added to accelerate saponification, which reduces the cure time to one to three weeks.

Cody Miller
Cody Miller

“Cold process soapmaking is where I started, and it’s where I’ll stay,” Miller says. “Cold process allows me to get as creative as I want with my soap bars, including more intricate designs. For me, the longer cure period is worth the wait.”

For her, post saponification — when the mixture is still liquid — is when the real fun begins. Miller incorporates colorants, exfoliants, and scents into the mix. Pouring and pattern making techniques also help her to make each batch a work of art. After the soap is poured into its mold (container), it will rest for 24 hours, after which it is then cut into individual bars to cure for four to six weeks.

Miller’s advice to others considering the soapmaking craft?

“Do your research before purchasing and trying your first batch. There are many great online resources — soapqueen.com, brambleberry.com, YouTube, etc. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work out in the beginning,” she says. “I researched for a good month straight trying to learn the lingo and science behind it all before I attempted my first batch. Even then, there was soap on every surface in the kitchen when I was done.”

Once you master the chemistry, the creativity of soaping never gets old, Miller contends.
“I love how I can turn something no one really thinks about, but uses every day, into a work of art. I enjoy offering people a way to feel good about what they put on their skin and the opportunity to know where their soap comes from.”  

Soapmaking by the Numbers

  • 1-2 hours  to make one batch
  • 1-3 weeks  to cure (hot process)
  • 4-6 weeks  to cure (cold process)
  • 5 pounds  of soap per batch
  • 4-5 ounces  per bar of soap
  • 16 bars  of soap per batch
  • 8  in-stock scents with others on the way  
  • $8  cost per bar
  • $35-55  cost of ingredients used in one batch of soap
    Source: Cherokee Crow Soapery

All about that Base

The following are some common bases used in soapmaking recipes.

  • Avocado Oil:  Makes a soft bar of soap; rich in vitamins A, B, D, and E.
  • Castor Oil:  Thick oil from the castor bean plant; draws moisture to the skin; creates amazing lather.
  • Cocoa Butter:  Solid and hard at room temperature; adds a luxurious and moisturizing feeling.
  • Coconut Oil:  Super cleansing and produces large bubbles; can be drying.
  • Grapeseed Oil:  Silky smooth feel; lightweight, thin texture; high in linoleic acid, antioxidants.
  • Flaxseed Oil:  Lightweight, rich source of fatty acids.
  • Lard:  Rendered pig fat, produces firm bars, stable lather.
  • Olive Oil:  Thick oil that moisturizes the skin, creates creamy lather.
  • Palm Oil:  Unique feeling to cold process soap; helps harden bars; creates lather paired with coconut oil.
  • Rice Bran Oil:  Rich in vitamin E, antioxidants; thick, moisturizing consistency similar to olive oil.
  • Shea Butter:  Luxurious, moisturizing on the skin; helps harden cold process soap.
  • Safflower Oil:  Mild, skin-loving oil; similar to canola or sunflower oil.
  • Sunflower Oil:  Rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin E; one of the more cost-effective oils; conditioning lather for skin.
  • Sweet Almond Oil:  Full of fatty acids; lightweight, moisturizing consistency.
  • Tallow:  Fat rendered from meat other than pork; produces firm bars, stable lather.
    Source: Soapqueen.com