Lessons from soap making May 07, 2016 22:28

Here is what I’ve learned from making natural soap: enjoy every new skill and piece of knowledge you acquired, however small. When you fail, focus on what you have learned from the failure.

It took us weeks to master certain types of cold process soap swirls: mantra swirl and swirl in the pot. The key issue was to achieve a medium thin stage of trace (a stage of soap making similar to thin custard or cake butter). The soap butter would then be divided between containers with different colours and mixed again in the mould in the desired pattern. This proved more difficult that it sounds! We wanted to make sure that the trace is true, that is the lye has definitely reacted with the oils and the soap butter is nice and even. Perhaps it was partially our lack of confidence and practice, but several times we ended up with trace was too advanced to swirl the soap properly. It was like trying to make complicated patterns with thick custard. And then – eureka ! We discovered the importance of the temperature of the lye and the oils before they are mixed. And finally it worked! Except that the time after that it didn’t...

Winter forest is a typical example of a pattern where thin trace is needed. 

At the same time that me and my partner were trying to master the thin trace in handmade soap, my sister was aiming to bake a perfect Polish layer cake. Time after time the sponge cake failed for reasons that she could not fathom. There were also other things going on. In the Great British Bake off contestants were creating the most divine desserts. An article was published commenting on the number of scientific studies whose results are never replicated by studies using the same designs. I remember listening to a scientific program on BBC 4 where someone said that these differences in results can be due to variables that we cannot observe or control. Such unknown factors might also affect baking: have you ever noticed that the cake is not what it should be even though you did everything exactly the same as last time? I think this could also apply to crafting natural soap. We cannot account for everything – we can only do the best we can and learn from the mishaps. 

I also learned something about myself: the extent of my frustration with every handmade soap batch that did not match my expectation made it clear that I was being too much of a perfectionist. This taught me to enjoy not just the result, but the process of soap making. After all, I was crafting the soap in my precious spare time!