Soapmaking is one of those traditional skills with a long and ancient history. Making soap yourself grants access to possibilities for variation that is ever so satisfying. The purity of materials is in your own hands, this way. I’m very fond of that deep sense of connection to history and the independence that making things by hand allows. Baking sourdough bread, sewing clothes, throwing clay pots, preserving foraged foods, this is the kind of work that makes me feel grounded. And industrious. I traveled by train to the beautiful seaside village of Clovelly, Devon, to study cold-press soapmaking with Sarah Harper at The Clovelly Soap Company.
A few natural ingredients are required, and a willingness to calmly, carefully handle the dangers of sodium hydroxide, no worse than chemistry class, but far more exciting, I should think. We dressed in long clothing, with aprons, rubber gloves and protective glasses, and kept a spray bottle of vinegar nearby (to counter the alkaline sodium hydroxide, if necessary).
First we measured out coconut oil, sustainable palm oil, and olive oil.
Measured out the sodium hydroxide with great care. The name sounds slightly daunting, but if you responsibly handle boiling water, lighting fires, pumping a car with fuel, or driving one, frankly, you’ll be alright.
We took this step outside and refrained from inhaling nearby. Adding the sodium hydroxide to the water is safest, stirring til dissolved. The chemical process heats up, so the next project is to cool the melted oils and the sodium hydroxide & water to the correct temperature range. This is the challenging bit, to pay attention to the dropping temperature when one does get lost in conversation, exploring beautiful things in the studio.
Once the temperature is reached, we mixed the two liquids, added essential oils, and whisked them rapidly til they thickened and the wake of the whisk left traces behind it. I used geranium and rose oils.
Excellent process. Once the mixture reached trace we poured it into the moulds and covered with cling film, wrapped in a blanket to slow the cooling process, and went out for a walk along the stone harbour in Clovelly.
I’ll be unmoulding and cutting my soap soon, and leaving it to cure for a few weeks. If you’d like to make your own soap, you can follow Sarah’s guide, first published in the winter appleturnover newsletter. Or if you are a lucky thing and can visit Devon, go and see Sarah and her Clovelly Soap Co.