The Making of a Red Soap

Flora & Pomona

Red is the ultimate primal colour. It’s a carnal colour. Our associations with the color red seem especially ancient and deeply rooted: fire, blood and food. Did you know that red is the first color a baby can see? That women wearing red are perceived as more sexually attractive? That red makes us hungry? martyrdom-of-st-lucy-jacobelli

In my last post I explored the idea of the color red having a scent. Of course, that whole rambling exploration started with wanting to make a red soap and to match that color with a red scent. So let’s start with the colorants.

Natural Red Colorants

At this moment, I know of only two natural red soap colorants: red clay and madder root. I’ve also used iron oxide, which is technically natural, in that it exists in nature. But the kind you buy is made in a lab (using natural clays and heat) in order…

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The Making of a Red Soap

Red is the ultimate primal colour. It’s a carnal colour. Our associations with the color red seem especially ancient and deeply rooted: fire, blood and food. Did you know that red is the first color a baby can see? That women wearing red are perceived as more sexually attractive? That red makes us hungry? martyrdom-of-st-lucy-jacobelli

In my last post I explored the idea of the color red having a scent. Of course, this whole thing started with me wanting to make a red soap and to match that color with a red scent. So let’s start with the colorants.

Natural Red Colorants

At this moment, I know of only two natural red soap colorants: red clay and madder root. I’ve also used iron oxide, which is technically natural, in that it exists in nature. But the kind you buy is made in a lab (using natural clays and heat) in order to be consistent and skin safe. Oxide wasn’t an option here, as the challenge I set for myself was to make an all natural soap. I have already tried clay, and it is very satisfactory, plus it adds an extra cleansing quality and a slip that can be very enjoyable. But it yields more of an earthy tone, so not quite the red I was looking for. I have also tried paprika, which can yield an orange-y hue, but it is not a stable colorant.

Madder root is very stable, long-lasting and effective in soap, but as with any botanical you may get different results depending on the batch, and the type of extraction you use.

220px-Rubia_tinctorum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-123The first time I used madder was in in this “Victorian Rose” soap. In that soap I used powdered root which I ground myself, and then infused in olive oil. The oil was indeed very colorful, but alas I used iron red oxide in this soap as well, so I didn’t really have a good idea of what a full madder soap would look like (sorry about the quality of this pic).

Victorian-Rose-cp-soap-cut-MarsBalms (3)

Victorian Rose soap

My overall impression is that madder does better being hydrolyzed first, or you need a powdered extract, which I just happened to have on hand. I decided to add the madder extract to the distilled water. Here below you can see what it looks like before I added the lye.

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After adding the lye, the solution turns almost purple:

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All botanical extracts will jump a few shades on the color spectrum when they encounter a strong alkaline solution.

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Freshly poured madder soap

Finding a Red Scent

All synesthetic impressions aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of our ideas about what smells “red” are probably purely associative, but that this interweaving of associations is no less wondrous. Also, these ideas are the result of a mixture of things that may often be contradictory or, in the very least, complex.

The conundrum of matching a scent to a specific shade of red is what prompted the original meandering exploration into the scent-color red. If I had my choice of compounds and extracts I would probably end up with something resembling Red Musk by Body Shop (does anyone else remember that one?), or Red Door.

But formulating scents for soap is a whole other ballgame. There are other considerations at play here too: which scents and notes will last, which will burn off, which will morph. Also, what is a reasonable additive for soap? For example, no fool would use a rose absolute in soap. At least, not this fool… 

In my previously red-themed soaps, Australian Red Clay and Pink Marble, I used blends of palmarosa, rose geranium, black pepper, anise and lemongrass. So that was my starting point. I could have used an aromatic essence of rose… some almond essence… the labels say they are natural, but it is of unknown composition, and so the essences are out. I don’t have rosewood. And it’s sister scent, ho wood, smells blue to me.

Here I learned my lesson in making too complex blends for soap. So in the end I decided to go with a single scent and a single color. I narrowed my choice down to oils I have and that are also reasonable for cold processed soap:

  1. Rose Geranium
  2. Palmarosa
  3. Black Pepper
  4. Clove
  5. Cinnamon
  6. Star anise

Right off the bat, for a single-note, cold processed soap, clove, cinnamon and anise are out. They would work in a scent combination, but not as single notes representing red. Black pepper doesn’t quite carry and is too dull a note to stand on its own. So the choice was really between rose geranium and palmarosa. At first I was leaning towards palmarosa just because it smells pinkish to me, like an earthy rose color. But in the end I choose rose geranium. It smells stronger, which is important because saponification has a way of challenging the sustain of natural fragrances. And I’m glad I did, because the rose accents really stand out in the end product, with the soap toning down some of the herbaceous, more lemony notes of the geranium.

Here are the results. I think the earthy rosy scent perfectly complements this shade of burgundy pink.

Of course, as soon as I had the idea of making a red monochromatic soap I knew I would have to continue the challenge with other colors. What started as an idea for a red soap, became a triptych of natural colors. madder-alkanet-indigo-soaps-Flora-&-Pomona

Natural colors, or botanical dye extracts, have a vibrancy and frequency of their own, The shades you obtain from them in soap is particular to the alkaline environment, and so it is appropriate that they are named simply by the plants’ names: madder, indigo, alkanet. madder-alkanet-indigo-soaps-labels-Flora-&-Pomona

Although I went through a similar thought process with the scent-colors of blue and purple, I never dove deeply into the question, the way I did with the color red. I don’t know what it is about the colour red that has occupied my mind for so long. It is odd, because blue is my favourite colour. What can I say? There’s just something about red.

I started this post over three months ago, when the world was a different place. Things have changed… The way I make soap may change, if indeed I am able to continue doing so. In some way, I’m sure my explorations into color and scent will continue. I just don’t know when. I do have some ideas of what to try next; I have some madder seeds for a dye garden I was planning… Sometimes that’s all you can do. Plant some seeds and wait.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you are all keeping well and staying safe. 

 

The Scent of Red

A few months before Pantone’s year of “living coral“, I started to think about the color red. Maybe it was watching The Handmaid’s Tale or being pregnant, but something made me ask if there was such a thing as a red scent.

Maybe it had something to do with being a soap maker and thinking about red soap, and about what scent blend would go with the color. During the year I did make some red swirled- and red-themed soaps. I experimented with two slightly different scent blends: 1) star anise, black pepper and lemongrass. 2) rose geranium, palmarosa and star anise. As far as color-scents go, I’d have to say the first one smells more red. I think the lemongrass really added the clarity I associate with red.

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The full log of Australian Red Clay soap by Flora & Pomona

As the year went on my exploration of red was put on hold. About a year later just this past December, it came back to me as I started to unpack the Christmas boxes. Down in the cavernous basement were my boxes filled with glossy red ribbons, red velvet stockings, candles, and sparkly ornaments lined up like rubies in the box. There really couldn’t be a better season to explore the color red than the Christmas. It’s a special kind of color; the red of fairy tales, of saint’s sashes, of resins and rubies; the clarion tone of poinsettias, Santa’s costume and holly berries. And nothing smells more like Christmas, to me anyways, than the scent of clove-studded oranges, ginger cookies and a cup of steaming mulled wine, with almonds and raisins. Then there’s sealing wax, the Christmas tree and that waxy scent of hot house flowers.pointsetta-flora-&-Pomona-sq

But are those things merely related in our minds by association? Can a color really have a scent? If I close my eyes and think of what red smells like, my olfactory imagination brings up a vibrant, bright yet dense note. Not precisely a floral, rather some mix between resins and carnations – not terpene-y, pine type resins, but a benzoin type resin. Then, following in closely, in that same exotic tree category, maybe some cloves. Then to clear up the notes and get the vibrancy of say, a glass of merlot, maybe a dash of something juicy and tart, like pomegranates. Then a waxy hot house floral, and finally a whisp of root and earth. Maybe a dab of funk too. Leather, perhaps.

I pondered this last one as I poured myself a cup of dark red raspberry leaf infusion. Was it the animalistic aspect? Red like blood? Carnivorous meat-red? But meat doesn’t smell like leather. Leather is tanned… then it hit me: tannins! The smell of leather derives mostly from the tanning process in which plant tannins are often used. It is also what makes raspberry leaf infusion (and regular tea for that matter) so dark and astringent. It is also present in many trees, most notably oak and chestnut trees. The word tannin even comes the latin word for oak bark, traditionally used for tanning hides. And what about those red wines aged in oak barrels? Tannin allergy anyone? But alas, it turns out tannins are odorless…

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A slice of pincherry wood, notice the red center.

Ok, so then leather wouldn’t smell like tannins per se… Perhaps the color tannins yield has become associated with the scent of curing organic matter, as in, something gone bad. Or maybe the scent of the plant materials themselves: what do oak trees, chestnut trees, raspberry bushes, and grapes have in common, besides tannins?

My first online inquiry into the scent of the color red yielded different studies. One said that some people associated the scent of cinnamon to the color red, and yet another that said Australians link the smell of almonds to the color red. If I had to cast my vote I would have to say almonds, but bitter almonds. So what do almonds smell of?

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Have you ever tasted an apple-seed, or sucked a cherry pit too long? Tastes just like bitter almonds. Apparently this flavor or scent, amygdalin “is found in many plants, but most notably in the seeds (kernels) of apricots, bitter almonds, apples, peaches, and plums“. It breaks down into benzaldehyde, which in turn can be oxidized into benzoic acid which incidentally got its name from…. gum benzoin, which was for a long time its only source.” Some researcher named Ludy studying benzoin in the early 20th century “reached the conclusion that benzoin balsam was produced from the tannin of the bark.” 

I feel like I’ve stumbled on something here, but what does all this mean? Are tannins and benzaldehyde interrelated? Is amygdalin a marker of the rosaceae and are benzaldehyde and benzoin sister notes, vibrating at the same frequency? Does the “benz” in both mean they’re related and does this have anything to do with benzin (as in gaz)? Is that why I like the smell of gaz? Any chemists out there, let me know! But let’s look at some plants that contain benzaldehyde:

  1. Black walnut. Also coincidentally, very high in tannins.
  2. Perilla frutescens also known as beefsteak mint. Never heard of it. Can only guess why it’s called beefsteak mint: is it red?
  3. Rooibus tea. Very red indeed, and also high in tannins.
  4. Horse chestnut. Very high in tannins but not edible. Are edible chestnuts also high in tannins and benzaldehyde?
  5. Almonds. Yes for the bitter almonds, and also the skins are reddish due to tannins.
  6. Cinnamon, also contains tannins, but is not overly astringent. Infusing the bark creates a red liquid, and it is carminative (i.e. warming).
  7. Camellia sinensis, or tea. Very high in tannins also.

So maybe the scent of benzaldehyde is associated with red because it often occurs in trees and bushes with lots of tannins, many of which produce either sweet smelling resins or blushing fruits with almondy smelling pits and seeds. So what does this mean? Red smells like benzaldehyde, or the other way around? Or red smells like tannin-rich plants? Or red smells like stone fruits?

How about the carnations that keep popping up in my mind? Neither fruit nor tree, Fragrantica describes the scent of carnations as follows: “It possesses floral spicy scent with pepper and clove nuance. Carnation is often used in classical fragrances due to its spicy peppery scent that deepens floral notes, and is especially effective combined with rose scent.” Aha, so it smells like something else – an aromatic (warming) flower-bud of a tannin-rich tree. But what gives clove its characteristic odor? Apparently the major aroma component of cloves is eugenol, which is an “aromatic oily liquid extracted from certain essential oils especially from clove oil, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil and bay leaf.” Are there tannins in cloves? Let’s see: “other gallic acid derivates as hidrolizable tannins are present in higher concentrations” So yes, some form thereof. Where else do we find higher amounts of eugenol besides cloves? It’s also found in allspice, bay rum tree, roses, and rooibos-tea.

So what about pomegranates? pomegranate-Flora-&-PomonaNeither part of the roseacea family, nor an actual tree, it’s not a spice nor a resin. Why would they smell red besides their obvious color: “The scent of pomegranate is subtle, distinct, twisting the green powdery fragrance of its skin around the sweet-tart and winey aroma of the seeds.” Ok, the orange peel-like white on the inside of the skin is a giveaway – it’s astringent smelling, hence the “green powdery fragrance.” Why does it smell tart and winey? Perhaps the chemical compounds are connected to the color: “Primarily, the pigmentation of pomegranate juice results from the presence of anthocyanins and ellagitannins”. Ellagitannis are a “diverse class of hydrolyzable tannins” hydrolyzable means they are capable of undergoing “hydrolysis; decompose by reacting with water.” So, as far as I can tell, they are essentially tannins. The anthocyanins (you may recognize the word cyan from photoshop meaning blue) are pH variable pigments, meaning they are capable of producing various colors depending on the pH levels.

Like tannins, anthocynanins are odorless and also “moderately astringent” and they exist in vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, beets, red cabbage, black currants and, surprise (!), also in roses, raspberries, blackberries, cherries and plums. So my guess is that the more tart-sour-acid the environment the more red it turns. Hence, the color red would be an indicator to our noses, or rather, to our mouths, of tart-sour. Perhaps the tarter the fruit, the redder it is. Is there a bright red fruit that isn’t tart? Maybe watermelon or papaya… BUT their rinds are green, so not sure that counts. We’re looking for visual cues of tartness. Neither papaya nor water melons are tart, and hence, nor do they signal tartness with their rinds. If you know of any exemptions, let me know!

I’m starting to think that red may not only have a smell but rather, a taste and a sensation, some combination of astringent (drying), aromatic (warming), and tart, and maybe a touch of bitter. Of course, it’s very difficult to dissociate taste and smell.

But let’s look at what a professional nose thinks the color red smells like. The classic perfume “Red Door” by Elizabeth Arden came out in 1989 (three years after Chris de Burgh’s 80s classic The Lady in Red).

It was made by nose Carlos Benaim and is classified as an oriental floral and its main accords are floral, sweet, woodsy, and spicy. So how did Benaim achieve a red composition, if indeed that was what he intended?

Let’s look at some of the individual notes. Top notes of anise, orange blossom, plum; mid notes of rose, orris, and ylang-ylang; base notes of sandalwood, cedar, benzoin and musk. Other prominent notes are: carnation, jasmine, tuberose, vetiver, and amber. Here red is something warm and aromatic, powdery-woodsy and oriental-floral, and maybe a little bit dirty. But this could be any perfume you say! Perhaps. There is also the subtle art of perfumery in play, notes balanced just so, creating an olfactory impression greater than the sum of its parts. The aromatic compounds play footsies, winking at each other from across the notes. For example, eugenol features in roses, tuberose and carnation, and so forth. Then of course, there’s the idea that nothing makes a sweet scent smell sweeter than a touch of ass (I say this without judgment for the scent of ass. Let’s assume that in perfumery there is no good or bad aroma compounds, only bad compositions). So not every note needs to smell red or be red, it need only complement or enhance the red notes. The same principle works for colors: nothing makes red pop like green.

But still, there’s a red thread there, and many of these notes contain the same aroma compounds in varying degrees, linking the notes to each other like some kind of olfactory rhyme scheme. Which reminds me of wine. In fact, many of these notes are typical tasting notes in red wine. Let’s see what the Decanter.com has to say about understanding tasting notes: “Wines that have had contact with oak barrels, staves or chips can pick up sweet spice notes from the wood because it has a similar aromatic profile. For example, the aroma compound eugenol is found in both oak and Christmas spices like cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.” Ah yes, the Christmas spices…

Moving on to tuberose, another note in Red Door. Tuberose isn’t a red flower or red fruit, it isn’t part of the roseacea family, it isn’t a red resinous tree like cedar or sandalwood. However, one significant aromatic compound in tuberose is “methyl benzoate,” also “presented in the essential oil of ylang-ylang.” It has “a pleasant smell, strongly reminiscent of the fruit of the feijoa tree, and it is used in perfumery” Never heard of this tree, but it turns out it belongs to the Myrtaceae family of trees, just like cloves, allspice, laurels, the bay rum tree, eucalyptus, guava. It’s also present in bananas, cherries, coffee and black tea. So these two aroma compounds tend to come together in this group of tropical trees that produce edible fruits and spices. I wish I knew what methyl benzoate smelled like, perhaps it’s that waxy component I’ve been looking for.

But clearly, these compounds exist in thousands of plants, and so it’s a case of specific blends and concentrations. Still, it can’t be a coincidence that the flower is called tuberose and that they are both high in eugenol: “The floral volatile compound eugenol is an important constituent in many aromatic plants, being a floral attractant for pollinators as well as having antimicrobial activity. Rose flowers emit eugenol and its derivatives.

What other compounds do we have in this red puzzle. How about geraniol which “In addition to rose oil, palmarosa oil, and citronella oil, it also occurs in small quantities in geranium, lemon, and many other essential oils. With a rose-like scent, it is commonly used in perfumes. It is used in flavors such as peach, raspberry, grapefruit, red apple, plum, lime, orange, lemon, watermelon, pineapple, and blueberry.” Ok, so fruits and berries with lots of phytocyanins, lots of acids, and stone fruits from the roseacea family.

Now let’s move on to the rose and its scent, which is so emblematic of the color red.

Red roses, thorns and all, are a symbol of romance, love, carnality. Physical heat, yes, but perhaps not yet consumed. The tingly red of seduction, rather than say, the narcotic post-coital lull. More Red Door, less Opium by YSL (Opium is also a floral oriental, but has stronger earthy/animalistic notes of castoreum, labdanum, and patchouli).

A rose by any other color, would it smell as sweet? I don’t know. Does a white rose smell red and does it even smell sweet? What makes the red rose red then? You guessed it: mostly anthocyanins (is this why rose petals are astringent?). The rose, depending on its color, also has carotenoids, which is responsible for the orange/yellowish colors we also see in sweet potatoes, oranges, carrots etc. I’m assuming, it’s also what makes the rosehip, the fruit of the rose, so orange. The chemical compounds mainly responsible for the sweet heady scent of rose are called rose ketones, and these are also “found to contribute to the scent of apricots, beer, blackberries, grapes and wine, kiwi, mango, papaya, passion fruit, rum, raspberries, tobacco, tomato, tea, and many more.Other compounds that make minor contributions to the aroma include geraniol, nerol, (-)-citronellol, farnesol, and linalool. But it turns out it’s not the anthocyanids, which make roses and pomegrantes red, that are tied to the rose ketones, it’s the cartenoids: the biological origin of the rose ketones is the oxidation of carotenoids.

Ahhh is that why boiled carrots smell like roses ? There it is again, decay. “A rose will bloom, and then it fades…”. Death is so essential to our appreciation of beauty.

olivia-hussey-as-juliet

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet

But maybe it’s not so much dead, as ripe for eating? The rose petals smell good, perhaps good enough that we keep an eye on it and wait until the fruit is ready (perhaps ditto for apples and all the other stone fruits), and it’s the fruit that is really good for us. Perhaps astringency signals “not ripe-ness,” and tartness signals “could be yummy and full of vitamin C” and the red color says “interesting, but be wary”?

So we return to the simple almond. More precisely the bitter almond, which so many people associate with the color red: “It also contains the enzyme emulsin which, in the presence of water, acts on the two soluble glucosides amygdalin and prunasin yielding glucose, cyanine and the essential oil of bitter almonds, which is nearly pure benzaldehyde, the chemical causing the bitter flavor.” Pure benzaldehyde ahhh smells amazing! But you know, bitter almonds can kinda kill you. And let me just say, I love the smell of bitter almonds. But perhaps it screams “red” to alert us to the danger of cyanide (which is colorless and often odorless). Who knows!

Maybe this is the seed’s way of protecting itself? Maybe clove buds, since they are flowers, want to be pollinated but not eaten? Ditto the seeds? Maybe the cinnamon tree produces its hot tingly chemical compounds specifically in the bark to ward off munchers.

What about the tannins? Well, they are often used by plants to protect themselves not just against fungi and bacteria but foraging animals. The astringency in tannins are also used medicinally: “Tannins also play a role in medicine and human health. Remember that tannins are astringents that tighten pores and draw out liquids.” On the same page just quoted, it mentions cranberries and their high tannin-content, and it’s usefulness in staving off UTIs.

I am starting to think the scent red is purely associative, not only to color but mostly to taste, and it is this way because in nature these things hang out together. And why do they hang out together? Let’s say that it’s because the aromatic compounds of the plants – both odor and taste – are tools. The plants use them a) for protection, as anti-fungals, anti-bacterials etc. and b) to signal to animals. Color and odor (and flavor) work together as a language, and it is only a language because someone on the receiving end is understanding it. We understand, on some elemental level, that if a plant (seed, bud, bark etc.) smells strongly aromatic that it’s probably not food, but that it may be medicinal, or need some kind of preparation (cooking, fermenting, drying etc.). Astringent or super sour fruit = not ripe yet, or possibly, not edible. It’s a warning sign, a stop sign if you will, for us to proceed with caution.

arret-stop-sign

Let’s view this from yet another angle. We perceive these things – like cloves, cinnamon, bitter almonds, bitter oranges, raspberry leaves, rose petals – as having red scents because they have a warming and drying effect on the body in some way. And when we encounter other more exotic things that smell like these kitchen herbs, we associate them: carnations smell like cloves. It’s not the other way around. They are carminative, stimulants and digestives, and perhaps the most obvious ones are a mix of all these: literally warming up the mouth, tingling (like cinnamon), warm up our digestive system like bitters do, cause our mouths to pucker and feel dry like tannins do, smart our tongues the way acids do.

And why not go further out on a resiny limb: perhaps the scent-color red derives from fire, not only because of fire wood or burning resins, but because it is warming, drying, necessary and deadly. It is both seductive and dangerous. Lady in red, and stop signs. Cranberries = yes. Holly berries = no.

So to summarize, I believe what most people think smells red comes from 1. Edible plants, because smell and scent are hard to differentiate between. 2. Plants that produce heat in our bodies, heat being something we perceive as red, due to fire perhaps, or due to how our bodies react to these stimulating and carminative actions (we get red and feel warm). 3. Tart things. Why this is, I do not know, especially since it contradicts my previous statement. Tart things are considered to be cooling, not warming. My best guess is that many tart things happen to be red. 4. Things to be consumed with caution, or in small quantities.  These may often be medicinal in some way. Berries especially fall into this category. Think of elderberries. The berries are ok, but not the leaves, or the stems. Or, raspberries. Berries are great, but beware of the thorns. Point 3 and 4 conflate a bit here on the sweet-tart element of red. Although blue berries and red berries get their coloring from the same anthocyanins, blue berries are often sweeter, and the red berries, tarter. Generally and herbally speaking, the sweeter something is, the less likely it is to be bad for us.

So here we are, Christmas is over: I’ve over-eaten ginger cookies again, eaten marzipan by the ball-full (yes… I have a marzipan problem), and drunk my fair share of cinnamon and hibiscus tea. We didn’t get a white Christmas this year, but it’s snowing now and of course, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we have adopted these things as holiday items because we need to stay warm and dry. Or maybe those were the aromatics and products we have had available to us here during the winter, and maybe they kept so well because of their pungent, aromatic nature.

Happy new year and stay warm and dry this winter season. Join me next, in part two of this series: making a red soap.

[Disclaimer: as you may have noticed, I am not a chemist, perfumer, botanist or certified herbalist. I am merely a curious person, a soap maker and you know, generally into plants. This blog post is a representation of my own conjectures and hypotheses, and attempt to navigate and explore the idea of the scent red. I acknowledge my northern European and North American bias, as these are the two places I have lived: the idea of the scent-color is probably very subjective, and changes depending on cultural context]. Thank you for reading!

 

Silk & Ho Wood Soap, and the Ensō

Continuing with the Japanese theme, Silk & Ho Wood is a soap inspired by the traditional Japanese textile craft shibori. This dyeing technique creates beautifully intricate patterns using the plant dye indigo. Japanese indigo dye or aizome, is in itself a developed craft. A friend of mine who is an indigo enthusiast recently explained to me that the shade of blue created by Japanese indigo, often referred to as Japan blue, tends towards green-blue while the southeast Asian indigo tends towards the blue-purple. So the leading element of this soap was to be a light shade of Japan blue, and as a nod to the elegant shibori textiles, I also added a pinch of tussah silk.

Tussah-silk-Flora-&-Pomona

Tussah silk, or silk fibers, can be added to soap to create a smooth silky feel.

As with the Zen Garden soap, the scent for this soap was inspired by Japanese temple incense. Traditionally it is made of fragrant wood, burnt either directly or a blend of woods and other ingredients mixed into a paste and then formed into sticks or cones. While both soaps were inspired by the same incense, the Zen garden soap is a gardener’s soap, and I wanted it to reflect the outdoors with a fresh live scent. But with the Silk and Ho wood soap, I wanted to evoke the indoors, something more sensual and quiet… a blue silk kimono maybe, and sliding paper doors.

Agar-wood (also known as oud) and sandalwood are classic scents in Japanese incense, but since both are also extremely precious, rare and expensive, they are not a good thing to put into soap. In order to achieve a similar scent profile of the sweet woodsy notes of agar-wood and sandalwood, I decided to go with similar notes that are still traditional: ho wood, styrax benzoin, and Atlas Cedar. The ho tree, is a native to Japan and its name, kusunoki, means camphor tree, and has a sweet resinous scent that I love.

Japanese-temple-incense-Flora-&-Pomona
Incense from Sanjusangendo temple, in Kyoto, Japan. Zodiac omamori, or amulet, with bell.

Making the soap.

In formulating this soap I decided to go olive oil-free and instead I replace the olive oil with the two of the most common oils in Japan: rice bran and canola oil. The rest of the formulation was mostly hard oils. So I was prepared for slight acceleration of trace, especially with the benzoin tincture. But since the soap was going to be a solid color I wasn’t too concerned. Everything was prepared to go and I was stirring the lye solution when I remembered the silk. Luckily the solution was still very hot and the silk dissolved perfectly. I had forgotten however that silk tends to accelerate trace, and this along with my choice in formulation and essential oils (the benzoin is a tincture not an essential oil) resulted in accelerated trace (that’s when the soap starts to set up). I barely had time to add the indigo solution and stir it in, get the soap into the mold before it set up. Not very zen.

Trying to avoid air pockets and bubbles, I smacked the mold down repeatedly. I didn’t notice until the next day, when I tried taking the soap log out, that one side of the mold had shifted, essentially pushing the whole side of the soap making it crooked(!). To get the soap out I had to unscrew the mold. At this point I wasn’t sure what to do: the soap had turned out so differently from what I had planned and needless to say, I was very disappointed. Especially with all the precious ingredients, this soap was testing my resolve.

 

 

 

After I cut the bars the tilted shape of the bars kind of reminded me of the Shinto shrine gates, the Torii, so at first I thought I might keep it that way. But in the end, I decided to trim it down anyway. Before cutting the soap I made a little ensō stamp. The ensō stamp was something I had planned to make for another soap, but since this one turned out so very different from what I had in mind I decided to go for it. The ensō or zen circle is not a character but a symbol. Representing everything and yet nothing, it is often (but not always) displayed as an open circle. The ensō symbolizes the timeless cycle of life or the natural principle that there are beginnings and ends but that this process in itself is never ending. And I thought this was the perfect way to summarize the lesson of this soap: you never stop learning. To quote Lao-tzu: “just stay at the center of the circle  and let all things take their course,” (p.19 “Tao Te Ching”).

 

 

 

 

Zen Garden Soap and the Zen of Soap Making

The Japanese gardening tradition has a long rich history tracing back to as early as the 6th century. The concept of meditative gardening and the development of the Zen garden first appear in the 13th century after Japanese monks were introduced to Zen Buddhism. One of the most important aspects of Zen is that of the meditation-practice. Other contemplative arts in Japan, like Ikebana (flower arrangment), Kyudo (Zen archery) and Chanoyu (Tea Ceremony), are also rooted in this aspect of Zen.

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I first started collecting rocks when I was about 8 or 9 years old and it was also at this age that I first visited Japan. I’ve been surrounded by Japanese culture most of my life, so the idea to make a Zen garden soap came about pretty naturally, once I decided to make soap stones. When making the Basalt Porphyry soap stones I set aside a small amount to make the pebbles with later. About the same time last year I made another gardening soap that turned our really well, so I decided to merge these two ideas and make a Japanese themed version of it. In this way was my soapy Zen garden was born.

 

During the process of planning this soap I got to thinking a lot about the idea of meditative gardening, and about how soap-making can also be a meditative practice.

In the Zen tradition, the art of gardening is not simply about gardens or even about artistry. This, I believe, is what makes the Japanese aesthetic approach so appealing. From wabi-sabi to shibui the Japanese aesthetic isn’t so much a principle, or even a philosophy, as it is a way of being in the natural world. So while the garden is indeed a visual poem – the raked sand is often a metaphor for waves and the stones, mountains – underlying these metaphors is the desire to reflect nature as it truly is, not as static but in motion. Even if the desire to represent and the act of reflecting both are, in a sense, artificial, the impulse is not to fix nature’s “imperfections” or exact your power over nature itself à la Versailles (with its square trees and geometric landscapes), but rather to create a microcosm of nature. This means choosing (or in my case, making) rocks and stones with imperfections, creating asymmetrical compositions and then allowing time and weather to effect these compositions.

The meditative-practice is an experience and a process. The sand is not raked and then cemented in place, it is raked over and over again, and this process is in itself a meditation. Any soap maker or any crafts person will recognize themselves in this practice: recreating the same soap, or kneading the clay, or the repetitive practice of knitting: you do it over and over, and yet it is never the same and eventually it comes to mean something else to you. It becomes ritual.

Part of this sentiment is also found in the west in the oft quoted “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But it really is more significant than that, because the practice is a journey that never ends. Tea ceremony, flower arranging, raking sand in your garden, what these have in common is that through repeated ceremony of practice the common or natural world becomes transcendental. Rather than looking for that transcendental journey without a destination, you position yourself to never quite understanding the journey at all and to accepting that nothing is permanent. But you proceed nonetheless.

 

 

Keeping in line with the principle of asymmetry, I didn’t plan the placement of the soap rocks. While making the rake was easy, using it wasn’t! Raking the soap around the rocks turned out to be really difficult.

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Raking the soap turned out to be more complicated that I anticipated, and was extremely frustrating at times. But I managed to keep calm and tried hard to accept the “imperfections” as simply part of theme of the soap. It’s all a learning process!

By seeing things for what they are and opening ourselves a unique moment in time that will never be had again (Ichigo ichi-e, one time, one meeting), we are reminded to give thanks, to savor things and beings for their own essence: to observe the beauty of a rock, the scent of spring blossoms, or even perhaps, something as mundane as a well made bowl of tea, or why not, a bar of soap.

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Making soap as a zen garden practice.

There’s something about soap making that makes me think of these meditative practices. Perhaps because when I make soap I am typically alone, or at least, quiet, engaging in a repetitive process that requires my full attention. It demands that you be mindful. Each handmade batch of soap and sometimes each bar is unique: it is a reflection of you and your thoughts, but like a zen garden or a flower arrangement, we then let it go. Soap is not a piece of art that you make and then enshrine. There is nothing sadder to a soap maker to see your soaps sit unused, and this is why I love crafting so much. It has little pretense, and is very practical. There is always a use for it, no matter how pretty they may be, or how well they are made and how much thought we put into them: we want them to be used. And we want to make more.

Not all soaps are made this way, or as a practice. For some the soap is all about the final product, and there is nothing wrong with that and it started this way for me as well. But the more I do it, the more it fascinates me, and I’ve come to cherish all the processes of the soap making: folding the parchment lining, stirring the oils, the moment of saponification, cutting and trimming each bar. I also enjoy working with natural materials that contain in them – like soap itself does – an element of unpredictability. Just like nature, all things of nature change, morph, fade, die, transform, and transcend. The surprise issued by the process of transformation is probably what soap makers love the most. There’s an alchemical element to this process. Just like there is in nature.

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Zen Garden Soap: A gardener’s soap with three grades of cleansing grit – bentonite clay, pumice powder and jojoba seed powder – all set in a creamy base of organic fair-trade palm oil, organic coconut oil, organic unrefined shea butter, olive oil and organic cold pressed hemp seed oil. Scented with a woodsy blend of essential oils inspired by classical Japanese incense: organic Atlas cedar, Scotch pine, sandalwood aromatic essence, myrrh resin and eucalyptus globulus.

Shopping Locally for Christmas: Plateau, Montréal.

Shopping local can mean two things: shopping from locally owned businesses and shopping for things made locally. Ideally, both. For this season I decided to try to do this for all my Christmas shopping. I live in Montreal in an area called Plateau Mont-Royal and both the city and the borough are known for their artists and artisans, so perhaps this is not such a challenge.

At this point I am about halfway through my Christmas shopping, so this post is as much about the things I have already purchased as about the places I like to frequent regularly, as well as where I intend to purchase some of my Christmas gifts this year. I also wanted to pay tribute and give props to all the entrepreneurs out there: to the artisans and to the local businesses that support them,  many of whom started out and hang on by a thread of crazy passion. Passion for the craft, for innovation, and for the rediscovery of forgotten traditions. And lets not forget the sheer tactile delight of a thing well made. So here’s to all of you, and here are a few of my favourite (handmade) things:

  1. La Bobineuse de LaineA Plateau institution that has existed in various locations and incarnations for over 60 years. This store is a mecca for anyone with the knitting bug as they specialize in yarn – Bobineuse de Laine literally means wool winder. Its current owner has taken the store to a new level of community presence and commitment by broadening the inventory to include things like macramé twine and giant wool roving; opening up the store to local artisans (including yours truly) and their products; offering lots of workshops and participating in fairs and events. They also have an online store. This year I purchased (who’s getting it is a secret…) a skein of naturally hand-dyed yarn by Bleu Poussière. Such a perfect trinity of local-ness, with the wool being a Québec Dorset. Beautiful!Bleu-Poussiere-Taiga-laine-picby-CMars
  2. Les Petits MonstresA children’s clothing store owned and operated by the delightful Galina, who aimed right from the very beginning to fill the store with locally handcrafted products. Here you will find everything from hand-made cloth bibs to toques and baby safe soaps and cosmetics. Les Petits Monstres currently carries five of my baby safe products. This store is soon closing however, so if you want to take advantage of some amazing 50% off deals, hurry! The store closes on December 22, 2017.
  3. La Grande Ourse. This store is owned and operated a gentle grande dame and retired Rudolf Steiner teacher. Although most of their finished products are imported from Europe, they also carry toys and items made locally, as well as materials to make your own Waldorf inspired crafts with. As the owner herself once told me: “there is one thing in this store you can steal: ideas.” If you would like to read about something I have made with their craft supplies click here.
  4. Boulangerie Les Co’Pains d’abord. With three locations in the Plateau, this is the perfect place to get some tasty stocking stuffers, hostess gifts, or even your Christmas bûche (order early!). Anyone who wishes to argue with me, ask me what I mailed across the ocean to my mother last Christmas (answer: their fruitcake). This is also a great place to stop at during your Christmas shopping and take a load off. Recommended favourites: the chocolate truffles, tarte choco-amande framboises (I have one of these EVERY week!), and the hot chocolate, which is particularly good with a croissant or a palmier, each a little masterpiece of crunch, flake and buttery goodness.
  5. La Maison des BièresIf you happen to know a beer enthusiast, or be one yourself, this is the place to go. They not only carry an extensive inventory of locally made beers, but a wide variety of small batch artisan brews to suit every taste. They have a great selection of stouts and dark beers, which are great for making dark rye breads, and other Christmas type breads. Pictured below: Oat Stout soap (made with an oat stout from Québec brewers Microbrasserie du Lièvre), and the prop beer which I will be using to make my next beer soap with: Mille Iles Oat Stout. Both equally delicious by the way. oat-stout-soap-flora-&-pomona (29).JPG
  6. Rose Café MontréalThis is another operation that looks to support local artisans and the local crafting community, by providing a meeting space, a retail section as well as venue for various events and workshops. Some of the products sold here are by artisan-entrepreneurs and some local hobby crafters who sew or crochet at home on their spare time. This year I bought two things from some of these crafty local ladies: a fabric case (perfect for pens, makeup or knitting and crochet needles) and a set of croched necklace and bracelet, appropriately, rose colored! Rose-Cafe-Montreal-crafts-picby-CMars
  7. Craft Markets. Every year there are more and more craft markets. There are the huge classic blockbuster ones like the Salon des Métiers d’art, and the smaller markets of non-profits like On Sème’s November Market, or even fundraising markets like the Rudolf Steiner’s Christmas market. No matter where you go there are a few obvious benefits to shopping at craft markets: you get to meet the artisans themselves, the artisan’s and crafters often bring their best selection and a wider selection and at a better price than what you might find in retail outlets. Here are my market purchases this year:

From On Sème Marché du Novembre:

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Close up of Ceramic Bowl by Élise Rubin:Elise-Rubin-ceramic-bowl-picbyCMars

From Rudolf Steiner’s Christmas market.

  • All natural artisan soap by Blue Moose Soap. I might as well admit, that this is a gift to myself.
  • Stuffed animal in the shape of a Dalahäst for my toddler, by the mother and daughter team Almonte-Bravo.
  • Knitted sheep’s wool toque for children. This hat is seriously soft, wellmade and even has a liner along the brim (I will try and find the maker of this hat and will edit it in).

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How about you? Do you have a favourite craft market, artisan or store that offers artisan wares? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you so much for stopping by and remember, handmade is best made 😉

Natural Green Soap Colorants: part 2

Last year I tested six natural green colorants in cold process soap – you can read about it here – and no sooner had I completed the experiment than I thought of all the other natural green colorants I could have tested. I decided almost immediately to make a second experiment… and it only took me another year to do it 😉 but here it is! In this experiment I will test six more natural green colorants or additives in cold process soap: liquid chlorophyll, comfrey leaf powder, cold pressed hemp seed oil, neem leaf powder, nettle leaf powder, and sea weed extract/powder.

Parameters

After my first experiment, I realized that there were variables that left some questions unanswered. So I did three things differently this time:

  1. A control: I left some of the batter uncolored. In the first experiment the green clay was so pale it was difficult to see any color effect at all. Since I knew my soap recipe yielded a white soap, I could confirm that the clay did effect the color of my soap, if only slightly. But I couldn’t prove or show you this because I didn’t leave any of the batch uncolored. This time the control will make the effects of the colorants obvious.
  2. Gelling: this can have a big effect on your soap colorants and this was something I was left wondering about last time. So this time I decided to split each colorant into two separate molds, oven process one of them and leave the other one out, uncovered, at room temperature.
  3. Weight and equalizing each batch: Last time I measured my dissolving oil out by volume, and this time I did it by weight. Since I was also using hemp seed as an actual colorant, I needed to even that out to make sure that each test got the same amount of extra oil. I decided to add 5 grams of extra oil to each test, including the chlorophyll which is a water based liquid, essentially mixing the oil and the liquid chlorophyll.

The Additives

After my last experiment I received several suggestions for other green colorants to try: alfalfa, avocado, cucumber juice, chlorophyll, and other powdered botanicals. While I was game to try anything, I left some out because either I couldn’t find them, or because it would have been too difficult to test in such a small quantity, and to compare to the other additives. I really wanted to try avocado purée but there was no way I could have done it on such a small scale and account for the added volume and unknown amount of water.

Here are a few details on each of the additives I ended up choosing. Natural-green-colorants-test-F-and-P (7)Top to bottom, from left to right:

  1. Chlorophyll, liquid. Trophic Chlorophyll (Super Concentrate) extracted from Mulberry leaves in a distilled water base. I used a quarter of a tea spoon and it wasn’t enough to even register as a gram on my scale, which is why I didn’t bother adding the same amount of water to the other colorants. 
  2. Comfrey leaf powder. Hand harvested, dried and powdered a month prior to the experiment.
  3. Hemp seed oil: Manitoba Harvest brand, cold pressed organic. The hemp oil was the palest of the colorants, and I was glad to have the control to show that while it is pale, hemp oil can color your soap.
  4. Neem powder. Purchased at a health food/ethnic grocery store. Used typically in hair care. Dull greyish green color, but the fine powder is always nice if you want a less speckled look.
  5. Nettle leaf powder. Hand harvested, dried and powdered a month prior to the experiment. I choose nettle because it contains a lot of chlorophyll.
  6. Sea weed extract. Cosmetic extract made for skin and hair care applications that I purchased at a soap supply store. I guess it is basically powdered seaweed.

I started by weighing out the additives at a gram each. I came to this weight by starting at the most common ratio for any colorant, 1tsp / LB of soap, which is about 0.7 grams of botanicals, and then rounding up to 1 gram, my scale’s smallest unit. I added 5 grams of extra virgin olive oil to each colorant, except the hemp oil. I used the hemp oil as a colorant, adding it in at 6 grams, to replace the olive oil and 1 gram of powdered additive.

The Soap

For the soap recipe, I used the same bastille recipe I had used the first time around, but increased the batch size to account for the control and the oven processed control. The recipe is a basic bastille soap with olive oil, coconut oil and castor oil. Lye concentration at 38%. Superfat at 4%, and with the added 5 grams of oil in each colorant this gets bumped up to a 7% superfat.

I mixed the soap to emulsion them poured out a predetermined amount for each color  and mixed in the green colorants and oil. Then I poured half of the colored batter into a 6 cavity muffin mold – destined for the 170 F oven – and the other half into a crimped cupcake mold destined to sit uncovered in a cool room. The smooth soaps were left in the warmed oven for 4 hours, to try and force gel (although, to be honest, not sure they did gel) and the crimped cupcake soaps were left uncovered on a tray in a cool room. I unmolded two days later, and here are the results!

Results

This time I made more of an effort to take good pictures of the soaps at different times in the cure. Et voilà!

Freshly unmolded:

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Not bad at the unmold! My biggest surprise was the lack of difference between the oven batch and the room temp batch. The only one that is obviously different is the hemp seed oil, and it seems the cooler the soap, the more obvious the color. I guess it makes sense since it is cold pressed oil, perhaps heating destroys something in it.

Ok now, at two weeks, here also with the control peeking in on the right.

2 week cure:

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I find that at the two week mark you can really see that the oven processed soaps are yellowing and browning faster. Kind of like leaves in the autumn.

6 week cure:

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Not bad at full cure. Some blotches (soap from other tests) have appeared on the soaps, and that means I should wipe my spatulas better 😉

Normally, this is where most colorant tests end – at the 6 week cure. At this point most soaps are not only fully saponified but fully cured. If the color stays until the six week mark this is considered a good colorant, and in fact, this is where I was going to publish my results. But as life should have it, that didn’t happen and another 12 weeks passed before I sat down to write this. And I’m glad it happened that way, because here is a pic of the soaps 5 months into the cure…

20 week cure:

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Thoughts on the Results:

My feeling is that natural greens are particularly difficult because as we know, leaves brown easily. They get brown and yellow at the onset of cold weather, when they are picked, when they are cooked or otherwise broken down. And this explains also why the oven processed soaps yellowed faster. From the beginning and throughout the process chlorohyll was the most impressive colorant. It packs a real punch with the clear bright ocean green, but as you can see, it ages the least well. The chlorophyll is extracted so it’s not bound by leafy cell walls, which explains both why it is greener at first and then fades quicker. I also noted that the chlorophyll resembled the spirulina and chlorella I used in my first experiment, and that’s because sea weeds contain high amounts of chlorophyll.

I believe the reason the nettle and comfrey have held up the best is because they were 1) fresher and 2) more intact – ground in a coffee grinder – meaning the chlorophyll is still bound in the cell walls. The more you break botanicals up, the faster the cell walls will break down in a challenging environment: like alkaline soap, a hot stew, an infusion, or a tincture. So, if you can stand the speckled look, grinding your botanicals yourself might be the way to go. Although, these will eventually end up yellowed and faded too. The reason the neem has stayed the same color is probably because it already did its yellowing on the store shelf. When I bought it it was already yellowish brown. But I bet fresh neem leaves are green too.

As for the hemp oil, I really should have used more of it to know for sure. But I do believe that hemp would be no different than any other leafy botanical. Unless the green color comes from something other than chlorophyll.

Conclusions:

I started suspecting a while ago that the  botanical colorants that seem to hold true and stay fast, come mostly from roots. Indigo (and I guess woad too) is in a league of its own: even though the colorant comes from the leaf it’s extracted through a process. I have a feeling it’s because chlorophyll is kind of the problem, because its purpose is to be reactive to sunlight.

I now feel that I don’t need to test any more green colorants. But if you have any other ideas for other natural colorants I could try, let me know! And please share any comments, suggestions or questions you might have on the subject. Let me know if you want close ups of the different soaps, I could add those in after if you want. Thank you so much for stopping by 😀

This short video on natural plant dyes explains the difficulty in extracting green from plants (for cloth dyeing). Worth a watch!