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.
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.
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”).