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!  😉

1872

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!

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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.

1630

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!

Great late breaking news!

Somerville Soap Works will be at the Assembly Row Riverfest this Saturday with 13mL designs!

Tomorrow’s weather looks to be perfect for a day out celebrating local art, design and the opening of the brand new Baxter Park.  There will be an outdoor marketplace, food trucks, live music, a Steampunk Exhibition and fireworks at 8pm!

The event opens at 11am and closes after the fireworks.  It promises to be a fantastic day and I hope to see you there!

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!

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