Soapmaking History 101

Natural soap in the mold

Before I started making handmade soap, I’d never met anyone who had.  Now, it seems that everyone I talk to has a friend or family member who makes it as well.  There is so much out there that is invisible until you start to look for it.  If you’re toying with the idea of givin’ it a whirl, there are active soap forums with friendly people who love to nerd out over soap.  There are also plenty of books and web resources, but the best way to learn is through trial and error.  Fortunately, I’ve had more trials than errors, but I’ve had plenty of the latter.

I personally started making soap after a short-lived attempt to sell someone else’s Alaskan soap in Atlanta, GA.  If you immediately thought that the novelty of “Alaskan Handmade” wouldn’t quite translate to those in Atlanta, you’d be right.  But hey, I had just graduated college, and I was experimenting with creative ways to manifest my own job opportunities.  That’s ingenuity!

So many people ask me how I got started making soap that I began to ask, how did anybody first start making soap.  I had heard varying stories about the fat from sacrificed animals mixing with wood ash in a certain spot of a mountain stream.  As it turns out, that is improbable and only legend.  It is more accepted that the ancient Sumerians had some knowledge of chemistry, and manufactured a primitive soap using wood ash and fat or grease.  Who it was that first discovered this alchemic substance is unknown.

You can seek out more in-depth learning on the history of soap here and here.

Several millennia later, this is still roughly how one makes soap.  The method, which I use, is called “cold process”, and though the chemistry might get complex, the concept is fairly straightforward.  Soap has its own specific chemical structure, and can only be formed by mixing a strong alkali with fat.  In modern day soapmaking, for solid bar soap, this translates to sodium hydroxide or lye, and a mixture of oils and/or animal fat.

Here is an extremely simplified set of soapmaking steps for bar soap:

  1. Mix lye with liquid (goat milk)
  2. Mix lye solution with fats/oils at the proper temperature
  3. Add any extras like plant material, exfoliant, pigment, scent
  4. Pour in mold, let sit for a minimum of 24 hours
  5. Un-mold soap, cut, let cure for about 6 weeks

The fat from the goat milk at Mountain Flower will be part of what turns to soap!  This is the kind of stuff that makes chemistry fun.  This, and maybe Bill Nye.

Got questions?  Check my soapmaking credentials.  Hope to hear from you!

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