savon de marseille

Next to my own homemade soap, the soap I love best, the most beautiful, traditionally made, natural soap has to be Savon de Marseille.

savon de marseille

They call it legendary, and as the savonneries in Marseilles have been making their gorgeous cubes of olive oil soap since the 1300’s, I have to agree.

savon de marseille © elisa rathje 2012

I adore the patina that develops over the stamped sides, and I love the simplicity of the soap. It is so pure, you could brush your teeth with the stuff. The blocks are just gorgeous, and last a long time, so I keep one by the bathtub, between the epsom salts and the traditional razor. On such a cold, wet day as this one, I’d rather like to get into a hot bath and stay there.

soap-cutting

A block of traditional cold-pressed soap that I made, deep in Devon in the Rowan Tree Studio, has been waiting since the beginning of winter for my attention. One afternoon, in the kitchen, with a knife, I sprung it from its mould.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Gorgeous object! I love the raw look of it. The scent of geranium and rose is just beautiful, subtle and sweet. The pale shade of it is delightful.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Though it appears that I cannot cut straight. My blocks are decidedly charming in shape. Soap-cutting is much like cutting cool butter or a mild cheese, and in fact I had to assure the children that they mustn’t sample it. All those bits, when cured, can be grated into the jar of homemade laundry powder.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Like my experiments in clay, I find the possibility of stamping patterns and text into soap quite entrancing. Pressing some of my antique silverware gave some beautiful shapes. I’d love to carve a stamp just for this purpose. Now I’ve wrapped the blocks in paper, and the soap needs to cure for a few weeks before we can use it. Joyful process! Sarah’s soap-making book is coming out in 2014.

soapmaking

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.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

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).

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

First we measured out coconut oil, sustainable palm oil, and olive oil.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Melted it.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

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.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

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.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

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.