Natural and Rustic Soaps

I absolutely adore the artistry in soaps. Talented soapmakers can do some really incredible things with color, swirls, and embeds that just blow me away. But my first love is natural-looking and rustic homemade soap. It was through a natural soapmaker that I was first introduced to handmade soap. This soapmaker was at my local farmer’s market every week, and I was entranced by some of her soaps. I never bought it (my daughter did once), but her Sunrise soap with an orange slice tucked in the top and litsea cubeba and blood orange essential oils captivated me. I started using her Dead Sea mud bar on my face, and I noticed how much better it was for my skin.

I stocked up on these soaps as I prepared to move to Massachusetts because I knew I most likely wouldn’t be ordering them online, and I was determined to see if I could figure out how to make soaps myself. The first soaps I made on my own were natural-looking soaps. When I first started, I had every intention of making 100% natural soaps, but I quickly realized that there was nothing wrong with soap colorants and fragrance oils, and in fact, fragrance oils have undergone testing to ensure that they are skin-safe while essential oils are not as regulated. Using these materials in my handmade soaps did not hurt their quality. They were still handmade, which is better than any commercial soap.

I haven’t made any natural-looking soap in a while, however, with the exception of my Lavender Oatmeal soap.

Lavender OatmealThis soap is absolutely DIVINE, and I really wish it got a little more love. I adore it. It has a thick, luscious lather and it smells amazing—it’s scented with lavender essential oil and oatmeal, milk, and honey fragrance. It is made with aloe vera juice and finely ground oatmeal to make it extra good for your skin. I have given most of the first batch I made away. My children’s teachers will receive the last of it in a bath basket I’m putting together for end-of-year gifts. One of the nice things about being a soapmaker is that I always have the very excellent gift of handmade soap at the ready for any occasion.

Another natural soap that has been a big hit with friends and family and a few customers is my Oatmeal, Milk, and Honey.

Oatmeal, Milk, and HoneyIt’s a very pretty soap, and the Oatmeal, Milk, and Honey fragrance oil is yummy. I make this in an unscented variety, too, and it also smells pretty good. I actually like the smell of goat milk. Is that weird? Honey smells awesome in soap.

I recently received a package of soaps from fellow soapmakers participating in a swap. They made some lovely, natural-looking and, in some cases, rustic soaps.

Soap SwapsSeriously, how delicious does this cinnamon oatmeal soap look?   Cinnamon Oatmeal

And I absolutely love the label on this one.

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Seriously, how cute is that? Southern Romance, and the couple sitting on the hood of a Chevy pickup complete with cowboy boots together with the rustic font? Awesome! Might be the cutest packaging I’ve ever seen.

But look at what you see when you pull off the cigar band.

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Don’t you love it? It’s beautiful! Look at the oats on the top and even the drag marks make it seem somehow more wholesome and natural than it would if they had been planed away.

And check out this Cocoa Coffee soap.

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It smells awesome and feels so smooth.

I think this last one even has dandelion flowers in it. It’s so pretty.2013-06-16 17.53.28

Opening this box made me want to ditch the colors and fancy swirls and make a natural soap again. I made a new batch of the Lavender Oatmeal, but I wanted to make something new, too.

Then I happened upon Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve’s website through some circuitous route through the web, and I was inspired by the simple beauty of their soaps. There truly is nothing like a natural-looking bar of soap.

I had been wanting to make an almond soap for a while, but thinking about ways I could make it more natural prompted me to try making my own almond milk. I tried a recipe found at Frugally Sustainable via Pinterest:

  1. Soak 1 cup of almonds overnight (she recommends 48 hours, but 24 was fine for me).
  2. Peel off the skins. She didn’t say to do this, but I did.
  3. Put four cups of distilled water in a blender along with the peeled almonds.
  4. Blend until smooth. It took me a minute.
  5. Strain milk from ground almonds with cheesecloth. I had to use a tea strainer because I don’t have cheesecloth. I am definitely getting one because a tea strainer was slow going.

The milk might taste better if you used three cups of water instead of four. It tasted fine—sort of like milk with no milk fat flavor, if that makes sense.

Before I drank any of it, however, I measured out the amount I’d need for my soap recipe and froze it overnight.

The next day, I used it instead of water in my lye.

Almond Milk and LyeThis is what it looked like once the lye was fully incorporated. It stayed a pretty, creamy white and the temperature never rose above 77°F.  Isn’t it pretty?

I decided to add some honey to the soap, even though I knew that the fragrance oil I planned to use had vanillin in it and the soap was likely to discolor. Honey can also discolor.

AdditivesThe honey is dissolved in a little bit of the almond milk. I decided to use a tablespoon of the ground almonds in the soap itself.

To keep the soap a little bit lighter, I did add titanium dioxide, but I’m not sure how much that will really prevent the vanilla from discoloring the soap.

OilsHere is the oil mixture with some kaolin clay and titanium dioxide. The recipe I used included sweet almond oil, coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, shea butter, and castor oil.

I should have taken more pictures of the soap in process, but I didn’t. Here is how it looked when I unmolded it the next day. Don’t you love the cute honeycomb look? I love to do honeycombs on my honey soaps.

Soap in the MoldYou can’t really tell because of the honeycomb top, but this soap turned out rock hard and really creamy in appearance. I am not sure if that’s the almond milk or the large amount of sweet almond oil. I have never used almond milk before, and my recipes generally have around 10% almond oil at most, but this recipe has 25% sweet almond oil.

Here are the cut bars.

Sweet Almond and Honey SoapI do not know how much they might darken as they cure, as the vendor from which I purchased the fragrance oil warned that this fragrance does cause discoloration. The titanium dioxide will counter it some, but if they stay this color or perhaps darken a little more, I’ll be satisfied. But then again, this is supposed to look natural, so if it darkens a lot, I’ll just roll with it. It smells absolutely incredible. Even the sweet honey scent comes through. If you are an almond fan, you are going to want to this soap.

Ingredients: homemade almond milk, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, olive oil, sustainable palm oil, sodium hydroxide, shea butter, fragrance, castor oil, finely ground almonds, kaolin clay, titanium dioxide, honey.

Choices, Choices

Tilted heart made of lots of jigsaw puzzle piecesI was recently advised—quietly, and, I think, with helpful intentions—that I make a lot of different kinds of soap, and my customers might have a hard time choosing—perhaps it might be a good idea to pare down my offerings to some hardy best sellers?

I have no doubt that the person who gave me this advice means well, even though I’m not sure the evidence he provided (reference to an unnamed e-book written by a successful, and also unnamed, soaper) is necessarily a good source.

The advice, I should add also, was completely unsolicited.

It bothered me. I worried about it for a while. Then I came to the conclusion that I don’t have any idea what my customers will like. I haven’t been selling long enough to observe trends like that really, with the exception that I did note they will buy practically any of my soaps at Christmas.

I thought about it and thought about it, and finally I decided that what bothered me about the advice was that it failed to take into account that soap is art. Sure, it is a practical art you can use. No one would dare tell an artist that she makes too many different kinds of paintings or sculptures, or a musician that he makes too many different kinds of songs and he should limit himself to 10 or 20 that sort of sound alike. Though some consumers do like that kind of art, I would argue that it’s not good for any artist to stagnate and put limits on his or her imagination.

I could not articulate these thoughts to the person who offered me the advice, and to be fair, he did not push it further. And no one else has suggested to me that I need to pare it down. Most family, friends, and other supporters have been nothing but encouraging.

Will my soaps sell? Time will tell. I have a lot to learn about that aspect of soap making. But I also think I make high quality soaps that are good for your skin, and I believe there is a market out there for the kind of variety I offer, even if it causes a little bit of decision paralysis.

Midsummer Night’s Dream Soap

After I made my Seaside soap, I immediately thought about making a soap mimicking the night sky. I made this soap in the same way as the Seaside soap’s ocean layer.


Midsummer Night’s Dream’s title was inspired by William Shakespeare’s play of the same name; it is one of my favorite plays. I love teaching it.

The soap is made with cocoa and shea butters and olive, coconut, sustainable palm, sweet almond, and castor oils and a kiss of kaolin clay and real silk. The fragrance has top notes of mandarin balm, tangelo, and eucalyptus; middle notes of jungle moss, patchouli leaf, and sandal tree; and bottom notes of redwood forest, amber glow, and musk. It should be available April 16.

Soaping is Art

Over the last few months, I feel I have grown as a soapmaker. I owe a lot of this growth to the helpful people on the Soap Making Forum and more specifically, to Celine Blacow of Celine is gracious enough to create video tutorials of her soapmaking process, and I think I have learned more techniques from her than from just about any other book or tutorial I’ve found.

Jane Austen Series
My Jane Austen series: Sweet Jane, Mrs. Darcy, Marianne’s Passion, and Emma

For me, soapmaking is art, especially the kind Celine makes. I am growing to consider myself an artist. When I initially chose to use the word “artisan” to describe my soaps, I did it more out of a feeling that soapmaking was a craft, and artisans were craftsmen. Soapmaking is a craft, but it is a thing of beauty for its own sake, too. The great thing about soap, however, is that it’s art meant to be consumed and appreciated not just for its appearance, but also for what it does for your skin and how it smells.

I start with a fragrance I want to use. When shopping for handmade soap, the first thing I do is pick it up and smell it, and I have noticed others do the same thing. In fact, I have sold soap better when customers can smell it. The kind of fragrance I plan to use often influences my choice of oils and whether I would use water or milk. For instance, when I made my Coconut Lime Verbena soap, I was influenced to use coconut milk by the name of the fragrance.

After I’ve decided on a fragrance, I carefully consider what type of oils to use in my recipe. If I am after a certain feel or a certain color, I try to balance oils that will give me the desired results and are a good balance of conditioning and cleansing and will lather up well. I have a go-to set of favorite oils and butters that includes olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, castor oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, sweet almond oil, and avocado oil. I have never used all of these oils and butters at once, but I rarely stray outside this list when formulating my recipes. Lately, I’m finding I really enjoy using cocoa butter in my soap, and I’m becoming a fan of sweet almond oil and avocado oil, too. However, I recently tried sunflower seed oil in my Emma soap (pictured above—the yellow and cream colored soap with calendula flowers named for Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma). It isn’t cured yet, but I wanted to use it because the soap is such a sunny soap that it needed a sunflower oil in it. Incidentally, I’m thinking about calling that soap “Matchmaker,” but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

Finally, I think about color. I have only really seriously begun experimenting with colorants in the last month or so, and I am so pleased with most of the soaps that have resulted. I have found that working with colors adds a level of challenge to the soaping experience. I enjoy trying to think of an appropriate palette and technique. Some fragrances seem to pair well with certain colors. For instance, my Marianne’s Passion soap (pictured above behind “Emma” and named for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility) is scented with a Black Raspberry Vanilla fragrance, and I felt tones of mauve, pink, and white would do nicely. I was happy with the resulting soap even though I wound up with some crackle (glycerin rivers), most likely because I didn’t mix my titanium dioxide well enough. I’m learning.

My most recent soap (made just this evening and currently in the freezer) is an Anjou Pear Blossom soap. I decided on coconut milk as a base, but I discovered I’m all out, so I used buttermilk instead. I’ll be curious to see how the soap comes out because I haven’t tried buttermilk before. I decided that the best color scheme might be white, green, yellow, and a yellowish-green. I used a tiger-stripe swirl I learned from Celine Blacow that basically involves pouring stripes of soap down the middle the mold in layers, one on top of the other, until the soap is used.

I used the same technique recently with a Valentine soap I made just for friends and family, colored in two shades of pink and white and scented with a fragrance dupe of Victoria’s Secret’s Bombshell. The scent is described as “succulent purple passion fruit, burgundy Tuscan grapes, sun-kissed yellow peonies, fragrant vanilla orchids, and just a hint of fresh greenery.” Smells heavenly, and the soap turned out gorgeous.

Be Mine
Be Mine: A Valentine’s Day gift soap

I usually gel my soaps, but I really wanted to make sure the titanium dioxide behaved, and I had read that if you do not gel, it seems to prevent the kind of crackle I had with Marianne’s Passion. Sure enough, I think the white does look better, although I have learned that if I do not gel, I need to be extremely patient about cutting the soap. I can usually cut as soon as twelve hours after making a gelled soap, but ungelled soap is still too soft to cut. In fact, I learned that I need to leave it in the freezer for 24 hours, then let it sit in the mold another day, and I think I could still wait at least one more day to cut after that. Possibly more.

Be MineMy lack of patience accounts for a little bit of the lighter pink streaks you may be able to see on the darker pink.

Be MineStill, I did better than with my batch of Elinor (still trying to decide if that name will stick, or if I will get more creative with it—of course, inspired by Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility).

ElinorThe blue and cream swirl turned out pretty. I used an in-the-pot swirl and poured a layer of the blue in the mold before swirling.

ElinorUnfortunately, I unmolded it and cut it too soon, so you can see the texture of the soap is a little rough. But the swirl came out nice, and I learned something important about working with ungelled soap.

My point, and I do have one after all this rambling about my recent experiments, is that as I have learned, I have grown to see making soap as an art form. Sometimes variables such as colorants, fragrances, and temperature cause the soap to turn out differently than I had planned, but in general, I find the results to be unique and interesting, and I’ve been happy with the recent experiments.

Most importantly, I’m starting to feel like my soaps are earning the “artisan” title I somewhat prematurely gave them when I started.