Today I want to introduce you to one of the coolest guys I know, Sam Gordon. I met Sam when I was touring in the USA last year. We stayed with him in New Orleans, and as we were about to leave Sam gave us soap as a parting gift. Not just any old soap though, soap he had made himself. Something about this resonated with me, and has stayed with me for nearly a year since that gift was first given. It’s always beautifully personal to receive a gift that’s been carefully handmade, especially when it’s also natural and eco-friendly, but I was also fascinated with the idea of how one makes their own soap. The only knowledge I had on this was from watching Fight Club, so a little skewed to say the least. When I started thinking about getting crafty for self care I knew I had to reach out to Sam to share his thoughts on soap making, and boy I’m glad I did. Read on friends, you will not be disappointed!
Below are his words…
Can I tell you one of my silly joys?
I love going into pharmacies and walking past the soap aisle like it isn’t there. You know how after a breakup you might pass by your ex’s house and avert your eyes? It’s like that. Four years ago I broke up with commercially-manufactured soap. It was the cleanest split of my life.
That was a soap pun. Moving on.
In the summer of 2012 a friend led me into an art supplies store on Magazine Street in New Orleans where I live. There’s not much in an art supplies store that I know what to do with, so I wandered around waiting for my friend. In a dusty corner I found a wooden box with a sign that said “used books.” Books! I know what those are for! Sitting on top of the stack was this inviting cover:
I dug into my new old book that weekend. Soon I learned that I could begin making soap without too much hassle, and that I already had most of the stuff required. What I didn’t have, I could find pretty easily between the supermarket and the hardware store. I recruited a friend, bought all the necessary supplies, and began a new hobby that I hadn’t considered until my chance encounter.
So what is soap? And how do you make it? I’ll let the book tell it:
“True soap is a cleaning agent made up solely of fats or oils, distilled water and lye. There are many methods to making soap, but it always involves these three ingredients. When oil is mixed with lye and distilled water, a chemical reaction takes place. This process is called saponification.”
“True soap?” So what have we all been using?
“What you buy in the store is actually synthetic detergent.”
Huh? Tell me more book! What’s the difference?
“Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. You’ll have to google it!”
Here’s the difference: the soaps we typically buy in stores are made of petroleum products. They include additives like antibacterial agents and preservatives. They’re cheap and relatively harmless, but made of extractive resources.
The first soap I made required olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, water, lye (made from wood ash), some parsley for coloration, and peppermint oil for fragrance. All renewable ingredients, all derived from plants.
The chemical reaction that takes place is when highly-alkaline lye, dissolved in water, reacts with the oils or fats, which are slightly acidic. This can happen over a period of weeks, in what’s called “cold process.” I use “hot process” which speeds up saponification by applying indirect heat to the mixture. Sounds fancy, but all it means is that I put the ingredients in a slow cooker on “low” for about 45 minutes before transferring the product into moulds.
I won’t go into detail, but the whole process from prep to mixing to moulds takes me about three hours. I then wait a few more hours for the soap to cool off and harden. If I start making soap around 9am, I can usually shower with it that night. I highly recommend doing it with a partner the first few times, because it speeds the process up and the yield is more than enough for two people to each have at least a year’s worth of soap.
I think of soap making as a science first and an art second. It’s important to understand the chemistry and build familiarity with the process before venturing into more creative possibilities. A lot can go wrong with soap making since lye is a seriously corrosive substance and can burn your skin or react in ways you don’t expect. I once tried making a double batch of soap for the holidays by using an aluminium pot that my mom gave me as a gift years earlier. Turns out, aluminium reacts as the ingredients combine. After 20 minutes the soap had turned gray, the pot began to corrode, my kitchen was filling with noxious gases, and I was filled with guilt.
Once you’ve done your research — more than me, I hope — soap making is a wonderful outlet for artistry. Soap is infinitely customisable. Every type of oil contains different combinations of fatty acids, which give soaps different qualities. Handcrafted Soap has a nifty chart in the back that details eight such fatty acids, which contribute to things like hardness, lathering, conditioning, clean rinsing, and its effect on skin.
The options for colours include everything from pastel-like clays to parsley, turmeric, or food colourings. My recent favourite was a combination of two clays that created streaks of glittering gold mixed into a brownish-whitish base. You can use any essential oil for fragrance, and also add things like oatmeal, honey, or aloe to give it added special qualities. Soap can take any shape, as long as you have the proper moulds for it. I’ve made pink peppermint fleurs-de-lis, brown semi-circles that smelled like toasted coconut, and pale yellow chamomile-scented sunflowers, to name a few.
When it comes to sourcing ingredients for my soap, I don’t make a great effort to find sustainably harvested, local, or otherwise ethical inputs. If that feels important to you, I’d highly encourage it and don’t want to minimise it. On the other hand, I’m of the mind that while individual decisions about consumption matter, transforming our relationships to people and things is less about individual choices and more about organising and collective action. I’d love it if everyone passionate about ethical living could build together to where we’re pressuring governments and corporations to make real changes to policies, practices and regulations so that ethical lifestyles are a baseline expectation for all people, and not something that we have to go to great lengths to create on our own. That feels big, and it is, but if we have the resources and ability to make more ethical choices individually, then we’re probably also in a good position to leverage resources and power collectively.
I wish we didn’t have to think about all that. It’s frustrating to live in a world where even our passions come with consequences and complexities. And yet, we can hold all that, and still love the things we love. I think an ethical world is one where people are free to do that. I make soap because it’s hands-on, fun, a good partner activity, and because for a few hours on a Saturday I can feel like an amateur scientist.
My favorite part is when I get to use the soaps I’ve made. I’m proud of my soaps, and I like how they feel when I use them. I like showing them off to friends and giving them as gifts for housewarmings and birthdays. I like that they give me an opportunity to be generous, because I always have too many and end up giving them away.
Maybe that’s what’s really important about having creative hobbies, especially ones we didn’t expect: they change our relationships to people and things. I don’t look at art stores the same way anymore, or pharmacies. I have an expanded perception of myself and my creativity. I have a small but growing sense of what it might look like to live without depending on extractive industries.
These are all beginnings, and they happen when we allow for openings — when we break from the ways we’ve previously done things. Clean or not.
Sam Gordon is a nanny, poet, and organizer based in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can find his poetry at samdigspoems.tumblr.com.
Until next time, stay magic y’all.