Have you ever been curious about how the soap you lather up with each day is made? While reading the Little House on the Prairie books with my girls last year, my mind kept spinning about various homestead (yardstead in our case) projects I’d like to try with them. Lye soap was one of the first that came to mind. I was finally motivated to research the materials after my 6 year old asked if we could make homemade soap out of the blue a few weeks ago. We found a few youtube instructional videos, placed our order for materials we didn’t already have, made our soaps and had a great time!
So Why Make Soap?
As I’m typing this, I’m wondering why these homestead projects are so appealing to some of us – and especially why are they appealing to those of us in urban areas who have easy access to affordable supplies, no need to make our own, nor necessarily a ton of spare time.
I think the reason I personally am drawn to these sorts of activities goes beyond the curiosity of just wanting to know how something is made (although that is certainly a fun part of it). For me, there is just something really gratifying about “making stuff”.
I think there must be some innate craving humans have to manipulate the environment and create. I know I feel a sense of peace, satisfaction and connection when I slow down enough to figure out how to do some of the things my great-grandparents did for daily living (granted with a little help from modern day conveniences like Amazon Prime and Immersion blenders!). I love the way my projects often translate to building community with others, by fostering positive interactions and conversations when I share the process or the things I create. My time and energy exploring these threads always seems to offer me positive memories, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from learning something new.
Alternatively, buying something like a bar of soap at the store offers me nothing remotely as fulfilling or complex in exchange for my time and effort. In short, I find that when there is an absence of “projects” in my life, my day to day experiences are simply not as rich.
For me, living life without this kind of exploration and experimentation can be downright depressing, especially when I am bombarded with the abundance of doomsday events and acts of violence that seem to be the daily narratives of our time. And it obviously helps that I am not required to make soap if I ever get tired of doing it. It’s purely for fun. So I guess I could say that, for me, this stuff is play.
A play theorist named Brian Sutton-Smith once said, “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” He spent his lifetime attempting to discover the cultural significance of play in human life, arguing that any useful definition of play must apply to both adults and children. D.W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst said, “It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
Indeed. Yardsteading projects are my “me time”: a time to play, create, discover and light up the parts of my brain and personality that are often unexpressed and otherwise neglected.
Over the last decade, “making stuff” has become a large part of my parenting experience with my children. If I’m being honest though, while the kids helped me unearth this side of my personality by helping me see the world with more curious eyes, the desire to “make stuff” has always been in me, and I just used my kids as an excuse to indulge in the process more often. This is always apparent during those times when my kids aren’t interested in the least in something that “we’re” doing, while I am buzzing around with excitement! I try to include them as often as I can, but I also find it pretty heavenly to work alone, savoring the learning experience, any chance I can get.
But let’s get back to the soap. Before we get started on the recipes, just for fun let’s take a quick peek at the history of the soap bar. I always enjoy learning the stories of how things began and evolved, but if you’re not interested in this part, scroll on ahead to the recipe of your choice!
History of Soap
I came across a great timeline about the history of soap at this website that I’ll attempt to quickly summarize. Apparently it’s believed that soap making began around 2800 B.C., and physical proof was found from 2200 B.C. on a Mesopotamian clay tablet with a soap recipe inscribed on it. (So cool!) The recipe described a mixture of potash, a powdery salt, and oils to form a cleaning agent. Later in 1500 B.C., Egyptian manuscripts contained recipes combining animal fats and vegetable oils. The first reference to soap-making in literature was by a famous Greek physician named Galen. In 600 A.D., soap making “guilds” were formed and the modern formula for soap that we use today was created. Between 1700 – 1800 A.D. soap made its production debut in factories (after previously being something in homes) and today and we interestingly have yet to improve upon that old recipe and process – other than by adding a lot of unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals in the last 50 years or so.
Soap making at home
I experimented with two methods for making soap at home. One was easy and fast – it felt like a craft project – called the melt and pour method, and the other was the more complex method using lye, which takes 3 to 4 weeks to cure before it can be used.
I’m going to start with the lye version because it’s the one I most enjoyed, and I don’t want it to get lost at the bottom of this post. If you’re wanting to make soap with kids or prefer a more instant gratification project, go ahead and jump down to the melt and pour version below. The lye process is still fun for kids to watch and take part in some portions, but little ones can be much more more hands-on with the melt and pour version without risking chemical burns or inhaling anything harmful.
Homemade Lye Soap Bars
Rubber Gloves / protective eyewear
Small Kitchen Scale ($10)
Candy Thermometer ($5)
Wooden or Batter Spoon
Large Bowl (not aluminum)
Two Small Plastic containers (can be recycled)
A jug of white vinegar to wash with in case of burns
Other optional materials that I used:
Essential Oil (optional – I used lemon)
Soap Slicer (optional) ($7)
Silicone Mold (optional) ($4 per mold)
Cheap Immersion Blender (optional) ($18)
Drying rack or some kind of crate that breathes
I stumbled upon a youtube video by Becky’s Homestead that helped me think through the process – plus she’s this badass lady who left corporate America to become a homesteader, and I love that she’s putting videos out for others to learn from! I recommend checking it out before you start. I then compared her notes (using lard) to other recipes that only used olive oil and came up with this combination that worked great:
48 oz Olive Oil
15.5 oz Cold Water
6.1 oz of Lye
So, I am usually a “never measure and cut as many times as it takes” kind of girl when I do projects. I eyeball just about everything, and I get hives when I see a level or ruler. However, when making lye soap, it’s very important to put on your precision hat and think of this as a dangerous chemistry experiment – because it kind of is! You have to account for the weight of your containers, and you can’t be off even a few tenths of an ounce and expect to get the same result. Your turkey baster will help you add or remove small amounts to reach the precise measurements needed with the oil and water.
The other thing to keep in mind with this is that when lye is added to water, it becomes a highly acidic and hot liquid. Always wear protective eyewear and gloves, and keep kids and pets away from lye until the soap solidifies. Keep vinegar nearby as a quick rinse in case you get lye on your skin. I chose to work outside on my porch for the entire process. And my last lye safety tip, after using kitchen bowls, mixers and utensils to make lye soap, make sure you keep them separate from your other kitchen supplies. They are now your official soap supplies.
Step 1: Measure your oil, water, lye, and “tare” your scale to account for the weight of the containers you’re using. Heat your oil in a large pot until it’s approximately 130 degrees F. Turn the heat off and let it cool down to 110 degrees F.
Step 2: SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY pour the lye pellets into your measured water. NEVER pour water into a pile of dry lye because it can splash and cause burns. This stuff is going to get crazy hot very quickly. Let it finish reacting and dissolving until it cools to 110 degrees F. I used a plastic pouring cup for this, others I saw used recycled food containers. *If you should happen to get lye on your skin, wash it off immediately with vinegar – NOT water.
Step 3: Add the lye / water mixture carefully to the oil, stirring with a spoon (I used a wooden spoon). After it’s mixed well, use the immersion blender in 20 second increments for 10 minutes while stirring continuously in between. You can add essential oil and also any blended herbs, dried flowers or coloring now. Mix until the batter begins to “trace” or leave tracks behind the mixer (see photo below). The batter will be the consistency of pudding.
Step 4: Pour the batter into your molds (or a shallow box lined with plastic). Cover the box with a cardboard or some other form of lid, and wrap with towels to keep the batter warm in the molds. It will need to sit like this and slowly cool down for 24 hours.
Step 5: The fun part! The next day, after 24 hours, you can pop out your soap. If you used a large mold rather than individual bar molds, now is the time to slice it. If you wait too long, the soap will be more likely to harden and crumble. Stand the slices up on a breathable rack to allow as much air as possible to reach all sides of the soap bars. Find a shelf to store it and allow to cure 3-4 weeks prior to using.
Give as gifts or enjoy having your own year’s supply of homemade soap stashed in your cabinet!
This is a fun part for involving kiddos! ^^^ It’s like slicing butter 🙂
Easy Melt and Pour Honey Lavender Soap Bars
We started with this easy melt and pour recipe in our soap adventure, and we learned it by watching a youtube video that I now cannot seem to find to offer credit! I’ll update as soon as I can locate it. We ordered any needed supplies off of Amazon, but we already had most of it on hand.
Goat Milk Bars ($15)
Avocado Oil, Olive Oil or coconut oil (or a combination)
Vitamin E oil (I already had on hand from the Shea Butter recipe I did this year).
Essential oil (we used lavender)
Microwave Safe Bowl
This one is so easy and fun – and you even get to eyeball amounts. Just slice up the entire goat milk bar into cubes, and add them all to a microwave safe bowl.
Heat the goat milk cubes until it is smooth by microwaving 1-2 minutes at a time, stirring in between.
Once it is thoroughly melted, add (I just eyeballed) about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, a 1/4 cups of coconut oil, honey, 1-2 tsps of Vitamin E oil and any essential oil or coloring of your choosing. We wanted to change the color on some of ours, so we added dried tumeric to give it an light orange tint. We’ve also added activated charcoal once for some fun Halloween soaps. If you’d like an exfoliator, consider blending some dried lavender in a coffee grinder. I add about 1/8 of a cup.
Pour the batter into your silicone mold. Let it sit for an hour. Once it is cooled and firm, pop the soap out and wrap each soap individually in plastic and store in airtight container. They will continue to harden as they dry. Wait 24-48 hours before using.
If you’d like support creating your own rituals, yardsteading and nature connection practices, check out The Handmade Life! There I offer nature-based coaching sessions, share herbal traditions, handcrafted goods, DIY workshops and herbal consultations.