When I was little we lived in the French Alps, in a small peasant chalet, like every one of our neighbors. My father, though a respected and successful architect and musician, became a farmer like all our neighbors. My mother learned to make do with nothing much at all since this was the height of World War II and she had to somehow manage to feed and clothe six children. Like my father, she learned to do what her neighbors did to get by.
One of the skills she learned was the mysterious art of making soap. I remember these bars of soap as very rough, like sandpaper, and grey. Suds? As long as the clothes could be rubbed long enough on the wash board, suds weren’t important. It was all a little like washing clothes in a cold running stream and beating the clothes on the rocks until they could at least be imagined to be clean. I have no idea how she made these unappealing bars, but I do remember that she worked very hard at keeping us clean. Being an American, she had certain standards of cleanliness that her farming neighbors thought were a little excessive—maybe even a little compulsive.
As I have been exploring ways to stretch our budget dollar and get more bang for every buck, I have still shied away from the mysterious art of soap-making. As I roved the internet in my efforts to learn more, I was intimidated by the dire warnings associated with using lye in making soap. And what if it came out like the soap my mother made?
For my birthday, my lovely daughter Kim gave me two beautiful little bars of soap, wrapped in wax paper and smelling of lavender.
I saved the packaging because it was so pretty
I admit I hesitated before I used one of these lovely bars. I kept thinking of my mother’s grey sandpaper bars. When I eventually took my first shower with the soap Kim made I was astonished at the soft silkiness and the abundant lather—not to mention the exquisite fragrance of the lavender.
Kim is as passionate as I am about finding ways to not only save money, but come up with something better. Since she’s an artist, everything she makes is also very beautiful. We learn from our mothers, I know. But I have learned as much from my daughter as I hope she has learned from me. And now, I was ready to learn to make soap.
“It’s really easy, Mom,” she offered. “Why don’t you come over and I’ll teach you. We’ll make soap together.”
For her, everything is much easier than it is for me, I think. When I watch her in any task, I see that her hands are like a beautiful instrument doing her quiet bidding. Could I make soap? It seemed mysterious and a little scary, even complicated from what I had been reading. It has to be so exacting. That’s a hard concept for me.
I went to her house with my olive oil and the essential oils I had on hand. She had the rest of what I would need and if I liked doing this, she said, I could stock up on the other ingredients for future batches.
Lavender/Grapefruit with Lavender Seeds--My first effort alone
I learned to make soap from my daughter. And I learned how to make laundry soap from my neighbor Stephenie. Both these young women are decades younger than me. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. I thought I was supposed to be teaching from my own experience. But it’s really fun to pass on what I have learned from my mother, my daughter, my neighbor. As long as these skills get passed on we’ll be okay, won’t we?
I made another batch for myself, and then I taught my sister Betty so that she could pass this on to her daughter when she visits over Christmas. And Stephenie came over yesterday so we could finally chronicle the whole experience so that others can see that making soap may be a wonderful mystery of chemistry, but it is also an ancient and elemental skill.
8 oz. water
3 oz. lye
6 oz. olive oil
6 oz. coconut oil
9.4 oz. Crisco
A few dropperfuls of essential oils (I used 4 dropperfuls of grapefruit essential oil and about 10 drops of lavender essential oil—whatever your nose tells you)
Assembled equipment and ingredients
You will need:
1 candy thermometer (I have two which helps a lot)
1 kitchen scale for measuring (I found a good one at Fred Meyer with a nice big dial I can read and adjust for tare—bringing it to zero for exact weighing)
A large bowl, preferably with a pour spout
1 glass jar (like a salsa or relish jar)
Small container for measuring the lye into
Metal spoon for stirring
2 Molds (I used empty pint cardboard containers—like cream or EggBeaters)8 oz. water (place empty jar on scale and bring to zero before pouring in water)
Measure 8 oz. water into glass jar.
Again, put empty container on scale and bring back to zero before adding 3 oz. lye
Measure 3 oz. lye into small container.
Carefully pour lye into water
Put on kitchen gloves and take jar of water, container of lye, metal spoon, and candy thermometer outside. Pour lye into water slowly, stirring with metal spoon. Lye is caustic so stand back as you pour. Place candy thermometer in jar and watch the temperature immediately rise to approximately 175˚.
Steam from lye/water fogs up thermometer
Leave water/lye outside to begin to cool.
Measuring the coconut oil
Measure 6 oz. of olive oil and pour into large bowl. Measure 6 oz. coconut oil in container used for olive oil (it will be easier to empty) and empty into bowl with olive oil. Measure 9.4 oz. Crisco in same container and put in olive oil/coconut oil mixture.
9.4 oz. Crisco
Cover bowl with a sheet of paper toweling and put in microwave for 2 ½ minutes until all oils have melted. If you have another candy thermometer, put it in the bowl with the oils.
Ready to put ion microwave
When the lye mixture has cooled to between 100 and 110˚ and the oils have also cooled to the same temperature, the two are ready to combine. I find it easiest to put the oil bowl in the sink at this point to prevent splashing.
With blender whirring, slowly add water/lye mixture
Begin whirring the oils with the stick blender as you slowly pour in the water/lye.
Ready to add essential oils
When the mixture reaches the consistency of thick honey or thin mayonnaise (trace), you are ready to put in the essential oils. At this point, I’ve also added lavender seeds.
Pour the thick mixture into the two molds.
Let stand 24 hours, then remove the containers (just tear them off).
With a cheese knife, or other sharp knife. Cut each mold into four bars of soap.
Let soap cure two to four weeks.
Finished soap, edges smoothed with vegetable peeler