And we’re back!

It’s been a busy time lately, so busy that I’ve been able to keep the favorites, like my 1630 Oatmeal & Honey, and the seasonal goodies, like my 1630 Cider Spice, in stock in the shop, but I haven’t had the ability to do the experimenting that makes the process of soapmaking so rewarding for me.  It cost me my manicure, but today I managed to get two new soaps into the molds, both encouraged and enabled by the great folks over at Slumbrew.

It was totally worth it!

The first is going to be called Nut Brown Spice, as it’s made with a base of 1630 Cider Spice, melted down and blended with Slumbrew’s Attic & Eaves Toasted Brown Ale (good thing they sell this stuff in 22oz bottles so that I can put a little into the soap, then a little into the soapmaker…).  It certainly smells lovely, and with that hint of fall spices it will have just a touch of an exfoliating polish to help with dry winter skin.

The second batch is as yet unnamed.  It’s made with a base of 1630 Simply Clean but with a twist: the oil for the base soap is infused with cacao nibs!  The resulting soap has a warm, toasty, nutty scent and is delightfully moisturizing.  The cacao nib soap was then ground and blended with Slumbrew’s Porter Square Porter (which is itself made with plenty of cocoa powder and roasted cacao nibs from Taza Chocolate.  So this soap will be direct from the heart of Somerville three times over even if it’s named for a square in Cambridge!

The loaves will come out of their molds on Monday, so watch this space!

What’s with all the numbers, part three!

Previously on SomeSoapWorks, we looked at the explanations for the 1630 and 1842 on my labels.  And now, on to the thrilling conclusion!  😉


My 1872 soaps are some of the most fun I can have in terms of experiments!
My 1872 soaps are some of the most fun I can have in terms of experiments!

In all processes, especially those which involve some measure of trial and error experimentation, you are going to have some failures.  I’ve had plenty, including one early in my soap making experience, when I didn’t insulate a mold properly (the chemical reaction which turns oil, water and lye into soap puts out a lot of heat and you have to keep it warm until the reaction concludes).  The resulting loaf of soap looked horrible!  It had a thick rind on the top from where it had cooled faster than it had cured, and though it was chemically fine (the reaction had finished and the resulting soap was only just slightly more basic than neutral in pH), I had no illusions that anyone would want to actually use it.

Doing some research on what to do with my ‘failed’ batch, I discovered the process of “rebatching”, or remelting and remixing a finished batch of soap to try to fix errors or problems that come up in the initial cold process reaction.

I was surprised to find out during this research that many ‘soap makers’ do not in fact produce their own soap base.  Granted, the idea of working with lye can be daunting for some people, and plenty of folks only want to make a small amount of soap customized for themselves or to give as gifts, and so they buy a premade soap base, grind it up, melt it down, and mix it with a customized recipe of ingredients (colors, scents, and other elements) before pouring it into molds.  This “melt and pour” process does have advantages: since the ingredients you will be adding don’t have to survive the cold process reaction (which can produce heat in excess of 200*F) you don’t have to worry about the scent being “cooked out” of an ingredient, or having the color changed by exposure to heat.

The limitation of buying a premade “melt and pour” base is that you can’t change, and might not even be able to know, what is in that soap base.  Soap is rather loosely regulated by the FDA, and many companies who produce soap bases follow the letter of the law, rather than its spirit, and provide very little information on their labels.

Again, there is nothing necessarily or inherently wrong with this.  Companies are allowed under the law to protect their recipes as trade secrets.  The only trouble you get into is when you have allergies or sensitivities and have to be doubly and triply sure not to come into contact with something that will trigger a reaction.  I’m in favor of an exhaustive listing of components because I’m one of those people who reads and researches labels carefully, and I have still been burned (literally!) by a product whose manufacturer did not list all the ingredients.

My soap “failure” provided me with the perfect opportunity to try making melt and pour soap on my own terms, using a base that I could feel absolutely confident about.  I started  with my own pure olive oil castile soap, ground into flakes, and tested a variety of added liquids to see which provided qualities I liked.  It’s been a lot of fun to experiment, and provided me with an amazing range of new possibilities that I’ll write about here in future posts.

The simple key I use to refer to these remilled soaps is 1872, the year that the residents and government of the town of Somerville decided to mix everything up and reincorporate themselves as a fully fledged city.  I could think of no better analogy for this decision to take what the process gave me (the good with the bad), put in a bit more hard work and inspiration, and reintroduce it to the world as brand new and better than ever!

What’s with all the numbers, part two!

Yesterday we got started with an answer to the question I am most frequently asked when I’m out at a show or market with my soap, “what’s with the numbers on the labels?”

Today, we press on with part two: the nineteenth century!


Right now I'm working with three 1842 soaps: Tea Tree, Peppermint and Lavender

Right now I’m working with three 1842 soaps: Tea Tree, Peppermint and Lavender

Once I had my basic recipe settled, I turned to experiments with other oils to see what benefits they might offer.  Some I decided not to work with because I wasn’t comfortable with the questions raised by their cultivation or production methods.  Others I quickly discovered would cause an immediate allergic reaction, often before I’d even finished mixing the raw soap.

Perfume oils are highly problematic, because even though the FDA has relatively stringent requirements as to how ingredients must be listed on the labels of products, perfume and fragrance blends are considered trade secrets and so, though there may be anywhere from two or three to hundreds of individual compounds making up a scent, those components are not required to be listed individually.

There’s nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with this, but for those of us with chemical sensitivities, it’s just too big of a risk to take on a potential adverse reaction if we can’t be sure what’s in that compound.

With essential oil, you can be a bit more confident in your choices.  FDA regulations differentiate perfume oils from essential oils based on their contents.  While perfume oils can contain anything from compounds directly extracted from a raw natural source to compounds produced wholly in a laboratory, essential oils can only be, they *must* only be, the volatile compounds extracted from a flower, leaf, root, or seed of a plant.  Methods of extraction differ, so it is still necessary to be careful when selecting an essential oil to work with, but steam or expression are the most common extraction methods.  As a result, you are left with only the pure “essence” of the plant involved, rather than a blend of essences with other chemical compounds.

Still, some folks do react to essential oils in products, and so I wanted to have a distinct and easy to recognize key to help customers know when something more than just olive oil is in that bar of soap.  Sure, I list the essential oil on the label in both the description and the listing of contents, but I wanted a way for the difference to be clear at a glance.

I’m a bit of an absolutist when it comes to labeling.  Put it all out there, do the work of educating your customers on your methods and values, and then let them decide.  The other side of the caveat emptor coin is that the emptor must be provided with all the information necessary to make an informed choice.

The nineteenth century was a period of time when many traditional handcrafts (like the production of essential oils and soaps) began to be reinterpreted through the lens of industrial production, systematizing their manufacture (for good and for ill).  It made sense that, if I were going to continue to use dates to differentiate my lines, a nineteenth century date would be appropriate for a soap which included another oil, one extracted and refined using modern methods.

And it helps that I had a mid-nineteenth century touchstone in the date 1842, which is the year that Somerville was incorporated as a town in its own right, distinct from Boston and Charlestown.

Next up: the exciting conclusion to our “what’s with the numbers” series!

What’s with all the numbers?

I’ll be honest about this: I got into soapmaking for myself initially, to have options that didn’t cause an allergic reaction.  Selling my soap was almost an accident.  I was having so much fun experimenting with new recipes, new components, and new materials, that the bars were piling up faster than I would ever be able to use them.  I began by giving them away to all my friends, in what they all now refer to as “the year of soap at every birthday and holiday” (they say that, of course, and then all of them ask what I’m working on currently and when they might be able to try a sample… 😉 )

And even though I’ve started up the Etsy site, most of my selling happens in person, where I can talk about the process and the values I rely on to guide how I source my materials and plan what to try next.  I love being able to meet people at a fair or a farmer’s market to share what I’ve learned and answer the questions that people have.

You might be surprised at the question I get most often!  (Hint: it’s up there at the top of the post!)

It comes in many forms and varieties, and it isn’t always the first question people ask, but invariably I get it from all manner of folks: customers, market organizers, other vendors, even the guy who came in to service the water heater.

“So, what’s with the numbers on the labels?”

The three basic lines: 1630, 1842 and 1872

The three basic lines: 1630, 1842 and 1872

I’m so glad you asked!

When I first started out testing my own soap recipes, I had to come up with an easy way to differentiate them based on their contents.  I knew from experience that some oils were not an option for me because of allergies, but there were others I definitely wanted to try, and I needed an easy way to track all the mixtures, a way that included a convenient shorthand to refer to them, making it easier to write on a post-it note or in a spreadsheet.  Perhaps because of my love for local history, the idea of using dates just seemed natural to me, so I assigned the dates based on how simple or advanced the recipe was.

Over time, I tested each batch and weeded a fair few out: either because they caused a reaction or because the final result didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations.  Eventually I was left with a few key variations.


My favorite of the 1630 line!

My favorite of the 1630 line!

This is the simplest soap I make.  In its basic form, as my “Simply Clean” soap, it has only three ingredients: pure olive oil, and the distilled water and lye needed for the chemical reaction to produce soap.  If you have allergies, or are concerned about a gentle soap to use on sensitive skin (like that of babies or those with chemical sensitivity), you can’t get more basic than this.  With the benefit of modern chemistry, we are able to make precise calculations and exactly control the proportions of these ingredients, but in essence this is no different from the soap that humans have been making for millennia (we have evidence of this from centuries before human civilizations had developed writing, thanks to residues left inside clay pots and jars!).

Of course, once I had a basic Simply Clean recipe that I was happy with, I immediately used it as a springboard for all kinds of other experiments, but that’s a story for another day…

And why the date 1630?  Well, again, I love history and the history of Somerville in particular, which was settled in …you guessed it… 1630 as a part of Charlestown!

Next up: the nineteenth century!

Sock it to me!

What’s better than a luxurious bar of handmade soap?  A luxurious bar of handmade soap in a nubbly organic cotton sock that makes it easy to hang on to a slippery bar in the shower and provides soft exfoliation!

Like this!

Like this!

I’ve been experimenting with little sachets sized for my soap bars that would take even the mildest, softest soap and give it an added texture for superior scrubability!

"Scrubability"?  What, you're just making up words now?

“Scrubability”!?!  What, you’re just making up words now?

I’ve made my prototypes out of a raw organic cotton to avoid fabric allergies and because cotton is one of the few fibers with the magical property of getting stronger when it is wet while still remaining soft and pliable.  Add a bar of soap and the cotton will allow the silky lather through while adding just a little bit of roughness for getting skin clean and smooth.

See those little purl stitch bumps?  THAT'S scrubability.

See those little purl stitch bumps? THAT’S scrubability.

Once the soap inside is used up, you can just pop the sock in the washer and get it ready for the next full size bar, or you can keep it hanging around to drop in all the slivers and ends of soap bars that are too small to be easily held in the hand, bits that would otherwise clog the bottom of the soap dish and get thrown away next cleaning day.

There you go: an ideal blend of luxury and thrift!

Now that I have my prototype figured out, I’m going into production.  These should be in the shop by the end of the week!

6 Days to go…

I’ve been making soap for about a year now, and until recently I’ve been mostly making it for myself and sharing with some friends.  Beginning earlier this year, I started selling my soap, using word of mouth to get customers: most of the folks who bought from me either knew me directly or knew someone else who did!

This coming weekend, however, we’re taking our first tentative steps out into the wide, wide world with the Somerville Local First “Local is for Lovers” show at the Center for Arts at the Armory, and so all week we’ve been making preparations!  Come on Sunday from 11am to 5pm and see all that the Somerville area has to offer in the way of artisanal products!