Posts Tagged ‘Hand Made’

soap 3

I think I featured this one awhile back, on this blog.  But anyway, here goes.

My “soap opera” began in 1976, when like so many of that era I was crazy to do every earth mother craft possible.  A group of us women met at a Milwaukee church kitchen.  We brought bacon drippings and roast beef fat trimmings, kettles and cooking spoons, and cardboard boxes for a day of “fun”.  Although I can’t recall having rendered the meat drippings at home, I must have done that—or perhaps I did not render them at all (rendering meaning to simmer with water, cool, and skim off the clean fat for use while discarding the sludge).  Anyway, at the church kitchen we heated our fats and cooled down the mixture.

Someone had brought that old product, RED DEVIL LYE.  We sprinkled this into cold water, and after a bit of cooling time the lye water got stirred into our grotesque mixture of fat.  We stirred and stirred.  I can’t remember that anything significant happened to the stirrings, except for perhaps a slight thickening.  Finally, we poured our stirrings into cardboard boxes lined with something—shelf wrap, waxed paper, whatever—and home we went.

The day was in late February.  As I left the church, Canada Geese were winging northward bringing with them the euphoria that early spring signs always bring.  The Geese were the best part of the day.  By the day I got my box home, loose lye had sloshed and sprayed all over the box.  As I lifted the box out of the (would you believe?) station wagon (where are those beautiful vehicles?  I miss them!), I got nasty little stings from the lye.  At home the mess went to our basement, and finally in the garbage.  It was awful!  In retrospect, I wonder how many of those women ever tried again.  For me, such a colossal failure is like the proverbial red flag to the bull.  I had to succeed at soapmaking, and I persisted until finally things began to work.

Old bacon drippings and fat from roast beef, pork, venison, etc. were the only available base oils on the frontier, but I soon learned that beautiful fats are necessary for beautiful soap.  Most butchers will part with fat cuttings from raw meat.  For years I purchased the tallow from a local butcher (good quality bird suet is the best) and rendered it myself.  Lard is good, also, but beef tallow makes a harder, longer lasting soap.  One fat which will not work at all is poultry fat.  Never, no never use that!  For those who object to using animal fats, pure vegetable oil soaps are beautiful as well—olive oil soap being the best!

Now I order rendered tallow from an online source, along with vegetable oils which make up the soap’s base:  olive oil (the Lamborghini of vegetable oils), palm oil, coconut oil, apricot kernel oil, etc.  All of my other supplies* (except for the utensils) are delivered to my door as well:  sodium hydroxide (generally called “lye”), fragrance oils (or essential oils if you prefer), decorative molds, and colorants.

I will not post instructions for soapmaking, as it is a touchy chemical process.  Friends come on occasion, to observe and take notes—as that is the very best way to learn.  There are plenty of books and online sources for soapmaking as well, and some of these are fine.  But there are also some downright screwy books out there.  Buyer beware!  Learning from another person is the best method.  Nearly every local farmer’s market will feature a vendor of homemade soap—and that’s a great place to make inquiries and possibly find a teacher.  Meanwhile, the entire procedure is so exciting that, as with paints and yarn, it is downright overwhelming

Immediately after making the soap, it must sit covered in a warm spot for twenty-four hours.  For years I poured the mixture into lined wooden boxes, and covered the boxes with wool blankets.  This was fussy and space-consuming in the kitchen!  Now I simply cover the molds with plastic wrap and stack them between heavy cardboard dividers in my oven.  (An insulated, draft free box!)  I put a bit of masking tape on the oven door and dial—just to make sure someone doesn’t preheat the oven and pop in a pizza!  🙂

The soap MUST CURE uncovered, on a platter in your home for two or three weeks.  Then it will be totally, perfectly SAFE AND FOOL PROOF TO USE.  It is safe and luxurious to use on your face, or on a baby’s butt:  perhaps the safest possible cleanser—far better than anything on the shelves at the drugstore or supermarket.

Commercial soaps (with rare exception) are made with some petroleum oil.  That’s detergent.  Cosmetic sales people are absolutely correct to discourage people from using most commercial soaps, as these are rarely good.  But cured homemade soap cannot harm the face or body.  What’s more, the homemade soap will do the face and body worlds of good.  Whereas the skin softening ingredient known as glycerin is removed from most commercial soaps and sold for pharmaceuticals or ingredients in explosives, homemade soap retains its glycerin—a natural byproduct of saponification (soapmaking).

Amazingly, when the fat and sodium hydroxide mingle, they form a complete new thing—SOAP.  The fat is no longer fat, and the lye is no longer lye.  It’s all about soap.  So when you go to a farmer’s market and see a table of homemade soap, you can buy it and use it with confidence—providing the soap has been allowed to cure for two or three weeks.  If you have any doubts about the aging time, just buy the soap and let it sit for two weeks before using it.  You will never regret that purchase, and chances are you will go back for more!

Often venders will offer a line of soap with no perfume or colorants, for those who are sensitive to those additives.  I actually do make plain soap for one family member who likes “plain” best.  But the amounts of perfume and colorant which I use are so slight, and the quality of these ingredients is so fine, that there simply are no problems with my beautiful soap.  People always come back for more!!!

Margaret L. Been, 2014

*For my online sources, just GOOGLE:  Base oils—Columbus Foods; Fragrance and/or Essential Oils—Lavender Lane, Symphony Scents, Brambleberry; Colorants—Symphony Scents;  Molds—Brambleberry; Sodium Hydroxide—The Chemistry Store.

Some of the suppliers listed above carry most of the necessary ingredients:  base oils, fragrances, color, and molds for those who prefer one-stop shopping.  I’ve just mentioned my favorite sources for each thing.  But the sodium hydroxide must be purchased from a chemistry supplier.  The Chemistry Store requires buyers to fill out and sign a form renewable every year, attesting to your age and waiving the company’s responsibility for your use of the sodium hydroxide—a very dangerous, toxic product.

If RED DEVIL LYE can still be found, DO NOT USE IT.  Reportedly, it now contains other ingredients with the sodium hydroxide—things like bleach.  IT WILL NOT WORK.  And DO NOT EVEN DREAM OF USING DRAINO!   Fine for clogged plumbing, but never for soap!!!

Rubber gloves, a cheap disposable mask, and goggles or glasses should be worn when working with the sodium hydroxide.  I NEVER make soap when children or pets are underfoot.  As aforementioned, my first experience at saponifying involved a group.  Poor planning!  Soapmaking is not a groupie thing.  I will invite ONE person to join me on occasion, a friend or family member who wants to learn the procedure.  Rarely, two people will be included.

Here are some extra tips:  You can custom make soap for different kinds of skin.  Check out the properties of various herbs which may be dried, crushed or powdered, and added to your soap.  I use my homegrown lavender, roses, and mint.  Dried herbs and flowers are available online for a reasonable price, at Frontier Herbs.  Calendula and chamomile flowers are especially wonderful.

Most homemade soap is tremendously moisturizing; for years elderly people have loved my soap for this reason.  Coconut oil is the secret to achieving soap which lathers in cold water, but I use very limited amounts of coconut oil to assure a highly moisturizing soap.  However, for teen- agers with acne and oily skin I ramp up the coconut oil.  Acne and other irritating skin conditions will disappear on a regimen of good homemade soap!

ENJOY!2012 Soap 3


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One of the many delightful adventures involved in finding a new life passion, is researching its history.  Since I’ve been steeped and schooled in literature and the English language from little on, I’m no stranger to the craft of writing.  But art history provides a whole new world for me to explore.

Especially fascinating to me are the various art movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many of us love the French Impressionists, and the Post Impressionists who followed.  Nearly everyone is familiar with reproductions of Monet’s gardens, Degas’ ballerinas, and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.  The fact that these works have not become clichés testifies to their enduring, classic appeal.

The Impressionists came into being with the advent of photography.  For centuries, the artist (along with the scribe) had been the keeper of documentary provenance and the servant of history.  Painting frequently focused on detail.  In the mid 19th century, Paris was considered to be the art hub of the world.  Art accepted for display by the jury of the Louvres Grand Salon was subject to strict guidelines as to technique and subject matter.  Detailed representations of religious, historical, or mythological scenes dominated—with no room for deviation, individual choice of themes, or experimental methods of painting.

Into this stulted environment came the Impressionists, let by Monet.  Camera technology was capable of capturing detail but at that point photographs were in sepia, or black and white.  The Impressionists were inspired (and also aggravated!) to explode in color.  In contrast to the subdued Northern European palette in vogue at the time, these pioneers introduced a vibrancy of color which shocked and angered the art establishment. 

Freed from the boundaries of detailed representation, Impressionist artists explored the frontiers of subjective creativity.  Painters began to develop the essence and effects of outdoor light, en plein air.  The Impressionists also violated the standards of Parisian exhibitors and patrons by spurning traditional topics and painting everyday life—boating parties, gardens, gatherings at outdoor cafés, etc.

Because the reaction of the Paris art community was so vitriolic and violent, the Impressionists (named “Les Refusés” by their critics) had to stage their own showings which were not well-attended.  Patronage was virtually non-existent for years, and the Impressionists—so loved today—were probably the world’s first “starving artists”.  Judges proclaimed Impressionism to be “highly unsuitable for the public—the result of mental derangement.”

Finally, in the 1870s, the French Impressionists found a kindred soul who believed in them.  Gallery owner/art connoisseur Paul Durand-Ruel began buying and selling Impressionist works, largely to American collectors.  Durand-Ruel is quoted to have said, “The American public does not laugh; it buys!”

The Impressionists were followed by more experimental schools, theories, and “isms”, one of which grabs me by the throat:  Fauvism.  Introduced by Henri Matisse in the early 20th century, the Fauvists emphasized the free and arbitrary use of that element which I love best:  COLOR.  Les Fauvists not only wrenched themselves loose from accurate color representation, but they also forayed into the wonderland of abstract (or at least vaguely recognizable) shapes. 

Again, the Parisian art world reacted in anger.  “Les Fauves” means “The Wild Beasts”—humorous because the initial Fauvist, Henri Matisse, was every bit a conventional, family-oriented, balanced, and stable individual in contrast to many great artists before and since. 

Art and the raging isms . . . such fun to read about!  For the untrained and amateur hobbyist such as I am, one motivation predominates; I will paint what I want, however I want!  I’m not painting for an Academie des Beaux Arts, not for patrons, not for a teacher, but rather for myself.  Whomever wishes to come along and enjoy the results of my freedom is welcome!  🙂

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

Note:  I’ve never had a desire to “copy”, but I’m open to inspiration from some areas of art making.  I identify with Les Fauvists, although I’d never even heard of them when I began sloshing brazen color all over the place!

I fell in love with New Mexico—especially Santa Fe and Taos—years before I’d ever heard of Georgia O’Keeffe.  Above is one of my Southwest-themed renderings—digitally enhanced with suns, moon, poofs of cloud or whatever, and an explosion of light created by a program called Home Photo Studio. 

This software is great for art as well as photos.  Quite possibly, I qualify as a “wild beast” for venturing into digital enhancement! 

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A few years back my KOVEL”S ANTIQUE COLLECTOR’S NEWSLETTER told of a study at the University of Iowa which indicated that collectors have damaged frontal lobes. 

Actually, I think the study focused on folks who save decades of empty cereal boxes, plastic refrigerator dishes, and stacks of newspapers.  Those of us who collect English teapots, Teddy bears, and vintage kitchen kitsch may be exempt from such a dire (and seemingly ridiculous) judgment.

Nonetheless, those of us who do enjoy our collections find the “damaged frontal lobe” diagnosis to be hilarious.  If we are “damaged”, so be it.  We are contented, adventuresome, and never bored!

Environment may play a part in our hobbies and activities, but genes are also involved.  My parents were collectors.  However, their tastes were a bit more limited (and perhaps more refined?) than mine.  I have taken the gene thing to a new level. 

One of my nephews and a daughter share the collector’s gene with me—as well as at least one granddaughter.  More grandchildren may surface as they become mature adults.  Even I was once a minimalist, until something snapped in my early thirties and I never looked back!  It takes maturity to discover exactly whom we are and what rings our chimes!

Another, similar gene has been passed down in my family:  the passion for creating way out, funky stuff.  The Brits, who love to turn verbs into adjectives, call people like us, “makey”.  Would the “experts” at the U. of Iowa determine that we eccentric makeys have damaged frontal lobes as well?  It seems that collecting and eclectic creating are related, at least in my experience!

The first truly makey person I know of in my family was my Aunt Lois, although there must have been pioneers before her.  Aunt Lois was born in 1900.   I’ve blogged about her before, and I probably will again as she was a true mover and shaker in my life.  I think of her nearly every day!

Lois’s funky spirit first went on display when her husband taught at Berea College in Kentucky, and she immersed herself in mountain arts and crafts.  From there, Lois and her husband moved to California.  Need I say more than that?

I only saw Lois a few times in my life, in the 1930s and 40s, when she would return to Wisconsin for a visit and breeze in wearing the most interesting hand-made costumes.  Maya Angelou has called such garb “get-ups”.  My Aunt Lois was the Queen of the Get-ups.

I found Lois to be inspiring and wonderful.—not only her shawls, capes, and hats, but her entire persona.  She was full of smiles and excited descriptions of whatever craft she was into at the time.  She eschewed patterns and rules in her art.  Lois was an original.  Although not a hippie in lifestyle, she had that free creative spirit which would explode in wild, wonderful color generations later—the very wild, wonderful color that permeates my life and home.

I’m pleased to carry the Lois gene, and I have a niece in Colorado who has the gene as well.  I don’t think my niece ever met Lois, but the makey stamp is there—plain as the words I’m keyboarding at this very moment.

Among many other skills, my niece is a decoupage artist.  Here is a sample of her work, photographed in her Western home:

It just occurred to me that the makey gene has been passed from aunt to niece, and then again from aunt to niece.  I wonder what Aunt Lois’s aunt was like!  I’d like to see an MRI image of her frontal lobes!

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

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I love to show off my beautiful homemade complexion soap.  The soap is everywhere, in antique bowls, on platters, and stacked on shelves throughout our home.

Our daughter Laura, daughter-in-law Cheri, and I are producing heart soaps for Cheri and Eric’s daughter Nicole’s August 7th wedding.  The soaps will be wrapped in pretty net bags, and placed at each plate for the reception which is to be held at Whitnall Park Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee.

Homemade!  There is nothing better!  We live in an age of communication via words–and quite frankly sometimes I’ve had words up to my eyeballs!  Literary words, as in classic poetry and novels, YES!  I can’t get enough of those words.  But today’s words–text messaged, emailed, and even blogged like my words–get old fast.  How refreshing to be still and make things with one’s hands.  I believe I could survive without talking (although some might doubt that!) but I know I’d go bonkers if I couldn’t make things with my hands.

At a ladies’ luncheon party this week, we talked about how–when we were brides back in the 1950s–we embroidered our kitchen towels.  These bits of memory make my heart sing. 

Now despite all that is wrong with our culture, the magazine racks tell me something is right!  There’s a plethora of periodicals available on the subjects of knitting, crocheting, scrap-booking, quilting, beading, cooking, gardening, home decorating, etc.  I am not the only one on this planet who derives sustenance and life energy from making things.

The desire to create with our hands is part of our birthright, for we are made in the image of a creative God.  Whereas He created Heaven and earth out of nothing, we make things out of materials already made.  Yet the desire to create is evidence of God’s imprint on our lives.

Pictured below is our grandson Joelly, who cannot “play it straight” for a photo shoot.  (I love his silly faces!)  🙂  Joelly is wearing a scarf and hat ensemble which I made him for Christmas a few years back.

Hands that knit, and weave, and spin, and make soap (and many other venerable home products) are happy hands! 

Margaret L. Been–All Rights Reserved

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