Trials and tribulations of a Soap Witch
I’ve had a good run. Almost every one of my 40 plus batches has turned out to some degree… Until recently.
The last four have monumentally failed. Failed in a way I couldn’t find the “happy accident” place of soaping peace.
One failed because I used full fat coconut milk in my lye solution and an (for me) untested fragrance oil. I tried to salvage it. At first it was beautiful. After a few days of being cut, air got to the soap and I noticed brown spots otherwise known as Dreaded Orange Spots, or commonly referred to as DOS.
In this uncured state, which is perfect for molding, I began to cut the bars up and make small balls and stars. I was pleased with myself about my diligence to repurpose my soap. And then, days after that, all of it turned this awful brown. Not a salvageable brown, but that kind of brown that intuitively you know something is wrong with it and avoid touching it. Ick.
Ok, moving on. I’m over my soaping mistake. Maybe, but it lingers in the back of my mind that I cannot even re-batch this and all those hours of rolling balls until my palm was sore and all those hours carefully cutting stars has been wasted.
Holy Grail Soap
I’m going to try my hand at translucent soap. I watch a Youtube video. And I do, 15 times. I want to not just understand it, but know it. So I acquire my ingredients and get started.
Part way into the recipe I’m stumped. How do I make this powered substance into the clear liquid the video blogger is pouring into their perfectly clean crockpot? How? Where did that come from? Does stearic acid come in a liquid form? I stop what I’m doing, with gloves on (oh, I should wipe my keyboard and mouse down, damn) I look up stearic acid and the many forms it comes in, which is not an easy question to ask the Google Gods. After I realize I’ve not made a mistake, but the video failed to include that important piece of information, I continue. Now, my happy experiment attitude has been affected by a touch of frustration. Yet, I forge on.
After I’ve made the entire batch, which has taken hours, and unlike cooking in a crock pot where it can be forgotten for hours, soap needs to be attended to and kept in mind. So I don’t fully begin another serious task, but create mindless task to take up the time, like sweeping the floor and re-pinning soap pictures.
My translucent soap, although I purchased a $20 bottle of Ever Clear, and have all my ingredients, sticks to the sides of my crock pot and does not come out as directly as the video. I comfort myself with this idea, “well at least I didn’t break it.” This soap might not look pretty, but it’ll still work.
I mold this soap and start a new batch to figure out what I did wrong. Well, after much searching about this mysterious clear stearic acid. I discover I can melt it in the microwave. It stinks, but I’ll get over myself in order to achieve my goal… The holy grail of clear soap.
This next batch, which now I’m hours into this process and determined, fairs a bit better since I’ve decided to strain it. I get 4 1/2 bars (from a 24 oz recipe) of mildly clear soap. Not translucent, but less opaque than my cold process. Of course I’m not satisfied, but now I’m tried and have to clean.
I voice my frustration and lack of knowledge in a group, a group I forgot that was run by the person who made the video, and receive this feedback, “Did you like the video Bhakti?”
Wow. I’m taken aback. And that’s hard to do to me. As a teacher, when someone who is truly studying a technique hits a level of frustration, and all do because not one Zen Monk as ever taken my class, it's my job as their guide to help them overcome their frustration and see clearly. Not offer a biting remark. Not add to the frustration, but offer a clear path.
Now, I’ve lost all faith in my teacher.
I’m going to make cupcakes. I’m going to use a tried and true recipe and practice my piping. I’m going back to territory I’ve had success in.
I know that its important to have a water discount or my piping will be a long wait. So I do that. I use sodium lactate to harden my cupcakes and a touch of beeswax. All is going well, and then, my batter accelerates. Alarmingly so. I decide to veer from my recipe, which I’ve not done for the 40 previous batches, and add water to see if I can get it to loosen. I’ll take the hit and allow it to cure longer in the molds. I can be patient.
I ended up clumping the thick batter into the cupcake molds. I am not deterred. I stick it in the freezer and am shocked to discover after about 30 minutes they seem like I can un-mold them. I do not.
I finish the cupcakes and two days later I un-mold them. The red oxide stains my hands.
Since then, I’ve made more cupcakes with more mistakes, a six oil hot process that I could not get loose or liquid enough to pour, so my desired design was not going to happen. I stopped the cooking process too short. Not to waste my Shea butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil (and other oils) and lovely fragrance oils I re-batch the entire 2.5 pounds of hot process AND 2 pounds of the still wet-after-three-days cupcakes. Now I have mud – mud that doesn’t smell delicious and took 3 more hours to cook.
I might have burned my oils, but the soap lathers with creamy bubbles. I’ve learned that ugly soap is still useful.
I might not have achieved my initial soaping goals, but I’m richer in experience, understand more about those who put up videos (some are only there for self promotion, not the position of teacher) and have plenty of soap to give away for the holidays.
Soaping, as I’m discovering, is so much more about how I approach each task, what I understand, and how I handle frustration then making beautiful soap. I, of course, as an artist, want to manifest my ideas and execute those ideas in a way that creates beauty, along with creating a soap that is lovely for skin. And, still, it is not lost on me that this process, this art form, is so much more than that.
When I’ve made a soap that is more beautiful than I anticipated, I’m elated. I didn’t set out to have that feeling, I stumbled upon it. I have been chasing that feeling, that Christmas morning feeling, with soap and in my other endeavors. I’ve just been reminded that the higher goal is to enjoy that feeling when it comes up and move on to the next experience – joy or disappointment – and fully embrace that too.
Happy Soaping to all you diligent soapers. For those of you who have been doing it for years, you have my admiration. I now understand a small bit of what you’ve gone through with this art from. You’ve certainly earned my respect.