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.

Mrs. Darcy

I created the next soap in my Jane Austen series, Mrs. Darcy. It is gorgeous!

Mrs. DarcyThe recipe is similar to Sweet Jane:

  • 30% olive oil
  • 25% coconut oil
  • 25% palm oil
  • 10% sweet almond oil
  • 5% cocoa butter
  • 5% castor oil

I used Nature’s Garden’s Plumeria fragrance and colored it with titanium dioxide and ultramarine violet. I used a goat milk base and added silk to the milk and lye mixture.

I had an unfortunate mishap while making the soap. My hard oils were melting in the microwave and tipped over, spilling all over the place. I mopped up the best I could, then started over with the hard oils again. By that time, the goat milk, while still under 70°, was beginning to saponify. It never turned any darker than a cream color (thank goodness), but it was thick. I mixed it with the oils anyway and discovered that some of my silk did not dissolve. Perhaps it doesn’t when you use milk? Not sure.

Mrs. DarcyThen the soap started to thicken up, and I wanted to do a hanger swirl. As you can see, it turned out just fine, but I was sweating!

Next time, I plan to do something a little different with the hanger swirl. This is pretty, but I was looking for a more striking effect.

So what did I do wrong, folks?

  1. I tried a new fragrance.
  2. I used new colorants.
  3. I tried a new technique.

You should probably not try to take on all of that newness in one batch. I have learned!

One thing I’m learning, too, is that less is often more. An in-the-pot swirl is easier than this hanger swirl, but the effect is much more striking. Next time, I will try Celine Blacow’s trick of taping two wooden skewers to the bottom of the hanger for a more striking hanger swirl.

I sculpted the tops a little more than usual, and they look pretty.

Mrs. DarcyI used an in-the-pot swirl for my next Jane Austen soap, called “Marianne’s Passion.” I had meant to make it a Lydia Bennet soap, but the more I worked with it, the more it whispered “Marianne” to me. It’s perfect for Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. I’ll post pictures after I’ve cut it. It’s gorgeous!

I originally intended to limit my Jane Austen series to Pride and Prejudice in honor of its 200th anniversary this month, but the more I think about it, the more I want to expand the series to all of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. You knew I was a huge Jane Austen fan, right?

I would be remiss If I didn’t mention there are three new soaps in the Etsy store: Lilac Goat Milk, Sea Salt and Lotus Blossom Salt bars, and Grubby Girl (with shredded loofah!).

Sweet Jane Cut

Sweet JaneI cut the Sweet Jane soap this afternoon. The swirls are not terribly defined, which I expected. The yellow really pops after the soap has saponified. It’s lovely and smells great.

Sweet Jane

I have been watching Celine Blacow’s instructional videos, and I can’t think of anyone else I’ve seen who is half as good at explaining how to swirl. She does many different swirling techniques, including the hanger swirl, which I’m dying to try—unfortunately, I don’t have any hangers. Well, that’s not true. I have a bunch of plastic ones I can’t bend. A co-worker said he’d donate a bunch to me. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Here is Celine’s tutorial:

I ordered a few new colorants from Bramble Berry and did a successful in-the-pot swirl with three colors (Fizzy Lemonade, Ultramarine Violet Oxide, and Hydrated Chrome Green pigments) in a shampoo bar recipe with tea tree oil. Those bars are still very soft, but I’ll post a picture soon.

After trying it once, I decided to do another, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I realized I still had some Lemon Verbena fragrance oil from Bramble Berry, so I decided to do a coconut-milk based soap using the Fizzy Lemonade pigment and Lemon Verbena fragrance. I’m calling it Sweet Jane after Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen’s classic novel celebrates its 200th anniversary on January 28, 2013! Anna Quindlen once describe Jane Bennet as “sugar to Elizabeth’s lemonade.” She always looks for the best in everyone. Here she is as portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the 2005 version of the film (she’s the blond).

The Bennet Sisters
From left to right: Lydia, Kitty, Lizzie, Jane, and Mary

Jane refrains from judgment. She’s quiet and serene. Lemon Verbena is a perfect complement to her sweetness of character. I imagine she smells exactly like Lemon Verbena. And the yellow not only complements the soap fragrance, but also alludes to Jane’s hair color, believed to be blonde. Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra:

Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased—particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy;—perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time;—I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Paintings which is now shewing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit.—Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in Yellow.

Martha Rainbolt argues in a 1988 English Language article entitled “The Likeness of Austen’s Jane Bennet: Huet-Villiers’ ‘Portrait of Mrs. Q” that this image may be the one Jane Austen saw:

Portrait of Mrs. QSeems logical to me based on the evidence I’ve seen. She’s a very sweet-faced lady.

Doesn’t she look like she’d wear Lemon Verbena?

I’m not sure what I’m going to get with this soap. My experience with the Fizzy Lemonade colorant is that it doesn’t look like it has changed color at all when you add it to the soap batter, but after it has saponified, it is a very pretty yellow. Right now, it just looks yellow. Who knows what will happen when I cut it? I’ll post the cutting pictures tomorrow.

For the interested, here is the recipe:

  • 30% olive oil
  • 25% coconut oil
  • 25% palm oil
  • 10% sweet almond oil
  • 5% cocoa butter
  • 5% castor oil

By the way, in case you were wondering, yes, I will be making a soap for each of the major characters in Pride and Prejudice this year.