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, 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.

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.


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.

ZEN-GARDEN-SOAP-Flora-&-Pomona (17)

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.


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.


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.

Presenting … Flora & Pomona!

Hello Dear Readers,

Flora and Pomona is the name I have chosen for my soap company! Flora and you may know is the goddess of spring and flowers. Pomona, her less known sister, is the goddess of the orchard, the flowering fruit trees. When I was searching for a new name to best represent my budding business I thought of all the ingredients I use and the direction I want to take. It was clear in my mind that botanicals play an important role in my products, and my increasing interest in herbalism would continue to influence how I create my recipes. The soaps and bath products I make are made with the flowers and fruits of the earth: from sweet almond oil I use in most my soaps, to chamomile infusion in my latest shampoo bar. I have decided to keep the name Marsbalms for this blog, at least, for now, and I will continue to post updates on my latest developments. I will be building a website with a online store, and in the meantime will keep a webpage up with the essential information available. I am participating in this year’s Marché Angus, on October 7 and 14. Hope to see you there!


Baby Crafts, part 2: Felt Cat Rattle

One of the greatest things about the Waldorf store Grande Ourse, jouets pour la vie is that they sell the supplies to make textile toys similar to the ones they carry in store: things like real wool felt sheets, felting wool, thread, needles, and these beautiful embroidery scissors that I still haven’t bought but that I want. Badly. And the prices are affordable. I had bought a bunch of felt sheets with the idea to make a nursery mobile in the Waldorf style but had yet to start this project. While still in the googling stage – looking for ideas on how to theme my mobile – I had come across a bunch of pictures of felt plushies. felt-plushies-googlesearch-marsbalms

They looked really easy to make. Some of them anyway. And being Scandinavian (and born in the 70s) I decided to wanted to make my version of a Scandi Cat, a ridiculously retro looking and cute plush toy made by a British lady (!). I would have to make my own pattern of course, but this wouldn’t be difficult because the Scandi Cat is basically just an oval topped with two triangles. I sketched him out on some paper then folded it in half to make sure that both sides were the same shape and that the ears were aligned. You can see the lines I drew with a liner – doing this is a good idea to make sure you line up the features.


Made my own pattern by sketching out the cat on regular paper, after tracing the body, I cut the face out, after tracing the face, I cut the features out.

I would have to sew on the features. Again, no biggie, because the Scandi cat, and almost all plush toys are cartoony with simplified features. After using the pattern to get the front and back part of the cat (you can see this in the pic above) I cut the features out of the pattern: the face, the nose and eyes and used these smaller parts as mini patterns. Here below you can see the cut out features.


First you sew on the smaller parts onto the face using the blanket stitch. This is the same stitch I used to sew the cat together because it prevents the stuffing from coming out. It’s really simple and there are a ton of videos on how to blanket stitch.

The only parts that are not blanket stitched are the pupils and the smile – those were back stitched – basically a straight stitch that starts where the last one ends. I didn’t even know it was called back stitch, it’s so simple you can figure it out just by trying to sew an uninterrupted line. Incidentally, I also pulled each subsequent stitch up through the last and found that this made a neater line without spaces, especially since I was sewing curbed lines. Here’s a bigger pic.SAM_4219

Imagine that when you come back up with your needle instead of pulling it up next to your last stitch you pull it up into the very last millimeter of your previous stitch, essentially piercing through the thread and splitting the fibers of the thread a bit.But that’s nitpicking. It’ll probably be chewed to bits anyways, right?

Ok, then when you have sewed the features on you sew the whole face on, as you see above, with the blanket stitch. Then you have your front completed and unless you want to put a tail on the back part, sew the front and back together with the blanket stitch: SAM_4221 and leave a hole at the bottom and begin stuffing. Don’t cut your thread yet though! Just leave it hanging. I chose to stuff with wool. SAM_4222

Using a wooden dowel, I stuffed the face first, getting the ears good and puffy and then continuing my way down. In the middle I inserted a brass bell. You see them tied around the necks of the golden easter bunnies in stores now actually. You can get them at craft stores too. I was told that to make it chime I would have to encase the bell in a hollow ball first because the wool would damped the bell. But no, it does not and a year later still sounds clear! So, I just wrapped wool around the bell loosely, then put it in the middle and stuffed wool all around it. I made sure not to stuff it too much though, because in order for baby to be able to grab it the toy needs to be soft and have some give. The same goes for when you get to the end: it’s easier to sew it up if you don’t stuff the bottom too much, so after stuffing the cat I sewed up the hole a bit more, then stuffed the bottom with the dowel and then stitched it shut. SAM_4224

Ok, so I forgot (e.i. was too lazy) to give this cat whiskers and a tail. But, he’s a unique fellow. Kinda looks like the Cheshire cat, don’t you think? Like all the baby crafts I made while pregnant, I was worried that my baby wouldn’t like it. But she loves “katten” (cat in Swedish), especially the ears which she have chewed and sucked into little dark points. Here he is one year later, a bit mussed up, but loved. Felt cat rattle, plush toy Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Next time: how I made a felt and wood Sun, Moon and Stars Mobile!

Handmade wooden teething spoon

Baby Crafts: How I made my own Baby Toys. A series in parts…

This time last year I was pregnant with my first baby. I wasn’t working and since it was winter – and it was a brutal winter – I spent most of my time indoors, watching youtube videos on how to cloth diaper, and reading threads on morning sickness. I watched the blowing snow bend the two pines in the backyard. A peregrine falcon visited us a couple of times – eating his fresh caught prey on the pine branches. It was too soon to set up the crib. I wanted to paint, but had to wait until we could open the windows. There wasn’t really much I could do. I had started to visit a Waldorf store on Duluth street called “Grande Ourse: jouets pour la vie” meaning, toys for life. I love the toys in that store but I couldn’t really afford most of them. One day I picked up a piece of wood I had found on the mountain (In Montreal we are blessed to have a forested mountain in the middle of our city) and I started to whittle. This was the first baby item I made myself. It became a teething spoon. The two days it took to make it went really fast and as soon as it was done I thought: what else can I make? Here is a series on how I spent last winter, crafting baby items for my growing bump. Hope you like it!

PART 1: The Wooden Teething Spoon

So,  I found a piece of wood on the mountain. I think it’s probably maple, because the mountain (well, all of Montreal, and Quebec) is covered in maple. I’m a gatherer by nature so I have a lot of odds and ends around, and this time it proved really useful. As a small baby myself, I bit up a whole wooden dining room table so I knew teething toys might come handy. I watched a couple of videos on whittling and got busy. The first thing I did was saw off a manageable piece, about the length I wanted the spoon to be. I was lucky enough that the stick was already split in half. If it hadn’t been I would have had to split it by hammering in a knife point down the middle, if that makes sense. Next I roughly sketched the spoon out with a pen and “sketched” the outlines with a Swiss army knife.

Sketching out the wooden teething spoon

After that, I whittled away, making sure to whittle the handle away from the bowl of the spoon so that I wouldn’t slip and take away part of the bowl. I didn’t have proper spoon carving tools, but I did have a small whittle knife with a v-shaped blade and I used that to dig out the bowl. Sometimes I would stick the blade of the Swiss Army knife down the sides, but other than that a knife is pretty useless when you’re carving a bowl. SAM_2874

The spoon took the shape that felt comfortable in my hands, and I had to do it one small slice at a time. Glad I have a vacuum cleaner…


Starting to look like something!


After this I started sanding the spoon with coarse grit sandpaper, slimming it down and getting more elegant lines.


Then, a finer grit sandpaper…and voila! A teething spoon! I finished it all off with a baby safe wood-finish I made myself, using beeswax, linseed oil (boiled flax seed oil) and olive oil. This kind of coating is often used on wooden Waldorf toys btw.


Wooden teething spoon, done!


Side view, showing the grain of the wood.

Whittling proved pretty fun, if tiring on the fingers. And messy! Especially if you don’t have the proper tools. But I was happy to find out that you can make cool things with so little: a Swiss army knife, some Dollarstore sandpaper and a couple small wood working tools I got in Chinatown for under 5$. It kept me busy for a few days, then I had to find something else to do! Next part: how I made a felt cat rattle!

What to do with all these Cherry Tomatoes # 1 – Easy Pickling

Last autumn, after a particularly disappointing experiment growing tomatoes in buckets, I decided to save the seeds from the few fruits we actually managed to grow and get serious. We started germinating the seeds in April in little plastic greenhouses, tagging and labeling each, hovering over them, whispering encouragements, watching them sprout. Then somehow – I don’t know how – the tags disappeared and all the seedlings got mixed in together. This is how we ended up with a balcony full of cherry tomato plants. Five large self-watering 5 gallon bucket-planters – all cherry tomatoes. All fighting for space – horizontally and vertically! To get to the other side of our balcony I actually have to get on my knees and crawl. All to say – there’s a lot of tart red things begging to be picked. So many that when the squirrels come I almost don’t shoo them away. Almost… So, here are some of the ways we have decided to make use of them. First – an easy pickling recipe!

  • Pickled Cherry Tomatoes: 

Pickling brine isn’t hard to make. You need vinegar, salt, and sugar, and your choice of spices (usually black peppercorns, and a stick of fresh herb, like dill, thyme, rosemary). I always thought pickling meant hours of boiling jars, bubbling brine-juice and burning yourself. But apparently it doesn’t have to! I found this video by PrudentBaby about what to do with excess cherry tomatoes, and used the recipe to pickle a few jars of them (the video is a weird mix of a cellphone ad and cooking – just skip ahead to the recipe part). She says to use apple cider vinegar, but we didn’t have any, so we used red wine vinegar instead, adjusting the ratio slightly. Here is the recipe, which is good for 2-3 jars, depending on the size of your fruit and how much you pack it.

Give your cherry tomatoes a rinse and a once over. Prick them with a toothpickPrick the fruits with a tooth-pick

and shake off excess water, or pat dry.

In a pot combine:

  • 1.5 cups apple cider vinegar – or if using red wine vinegar 1.8 cups;
  • 1.5 cups filtered water – or 1.2 cups if using red wine vinegar.
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4-8 cloves of garlic, sliced. (whoa! this is what she said, but I used organic garlic, which tends to be much stronger, so I only used 2 cloves and did not include them in the jar at the end either). Use your judgement here.SAM_8861
  • 4-6 Peppercorns. Yes! I agree on this, give them a wack though first, to release their pepperiness.


Boil this for 3-5 minutes. Let cool. In a cleaned glass jar (I pour boiling water in and over the jar and then let the wire rim sit in boiling water for a few minutes.

They dry real quick after boiling water showers so no need to muck them up with a towel).SAM_8866 If using herbs, place your herbs in the jar SAM_8869





and then add the cleaned pricked tomatoes. Tap the jar on the counter a few times, to settle the fruit and fill the space with more fruit.SAM_8874Then pour the cooled brine in, and seal the jar up and put it in the fridge. Done!




Even without sealing the jar by boiling it, a jar like this can last several months in the fridge, as long as you keep the brine. The taste after 24 hours is nice and fresh, and very tomato-y: they taste like Mediterranean style plate of marinated tomatoes (you know,olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper). Yummy! You can use these on pasta, in salads, or just as snacks.


Make your own Clay Antiperspirant: link to recipe & review

It may seem strange to start my blog with a link to someone else’s blog, right? But this recipe deserves to be front-and-center: it is so amazing and the product is soooo good I can’t stop raving about it. Here’s the story:

Last week was tropical in Montreal: hot, humid and sticky… As I paced my apartment covered in perma-sweat, wondering what to do with the new clay I just bought at Coop Coco & Calendula, I noticed that the coconut oil I had just bought was as clear as water. SAM_8768. See? Like water. 

I remembered a deodorant recipe I had seen online a few days back. Using clay! And coconut oil! After a quick search I found it again on overthrowmartha – an awesomely easy and quick recipe, and on a 32 degree day, even easier. The coconut oil was already liquid, so all I had to do was pour it over the dry ingredients and mix! Done! SAM_8770SAM_8771

 I don’t want people to think this is my recipe, so I won’t list it here, just follow the link above 😀 Overthrow Martha explains why she uses arrowroot powder, but since I didn’t have any at home and was stocked on cornstarch I decided to substitute, and with great results. On the same note, apparently some brands of baking soda may contain aluminum (!). I did some research and it turns out that Arm & Hammer is safe. I was using a Canadian brand called Club Supreme, and when I couldn’t find any info on them, I called the distributor up. I had to wait a week, but they just called me back as I am writing this to tell me that it doesn’t contain aluminum, and it’s a 100% pure. Phew!

After mixing the flours and clay with the coconut oil, I added the essential oils (for a quick review of oils, go to the ingredients guide).  As the recipe suggests, I also put in 3-4 drops of tea-tree oil, and lavender. In addition, I put in 5-6 drops of lemon oil, to give it a fresh, clean smell; 1-2 drops of rosemary cineole, to connect the piney smell of the tea-tree with the freshness of the lemon; and finally 3-4 drops of GSE (Grapefruit Seed Extract), as a preservative (incidentally, it also smells resin-y and citrus-y. Score!). The overall fragrance turned out very citrus-y with undertones of wood-resin: completely unisexe and I have given samples to my male friends who enjoy the smell very much.

SAM_8777The recipe fit neatly into a large (200 ml/6.75 oz) Body Shop Bodybutter jar. For the rest of the heatwave, I kept the deo in the fridge, because it was liquid. But, as soon as the heat broke I brought it out: at 24 degrees Celsius it’s a nice smooth, creamy consistency.  At 22 Degrees, it sits kind of like wet beach sand, but still completely spreadable. SAM_9004 Doesn’t it look like sand? It spreads like cream though! I can’t stop touching it!

Ok, before I review the product let me just give you some background info: I sweat. I know that sounds redundant, but some people don’t. My boyfriend doesn’t sweat, and if he does, you can’t smell it anyways. I also have family members who sweat like sweet-smelling babies. But I sure am not one of them. When I sweat – I stink. And whatever I’m wearing will stink too. I have worn deodorants most my life. Various kinds: roll-ons, liquids, solids, salt-sticks, hippy deos with beeswax that strips your skin off. You name it, I have tried it. The only ones that “work” have been commercial antiperspirants. With aluminum. Now, I don’t care if I am wet, I just don’t want to stink. But of course, antiperspirant keeps you from sweating at all, by clogging your pores with aluminum causing them to swell to the point that no sweat can escape. Sick! Not to mention the preservatives, dyes, etc. etc. I can still remember how squeaky the skin in my pits felt, like plastic, as I was trying to wash them free of antiperspirant. I couldn’t. Even if I only wore it once a week, my pits felt swollen and gross.

So finally, I stopped everything: deodorant, antiperspirant, salt-stick. I had heard that you could detox your pits and that after a month of not wearing antiperspirant your body would readjust and stop emitting pit-stink. Great, I thought! One month went by, then two – I still stunk – three, four, five!? Yup! I smell. I had to make peace with my smell. Granted, it wasn’t as bad as in the beginning, but it was there. Until one day…Until I found this miracle clay deodorant! I am not joking: this works!

The first day of wearing the clay deodorant I went to my osteo, and lifted by arms without any traces under my pits. No white lines, or even grey lines on my black dress. Nada! See? Claydeo-pit

Laying on a table being handled usually makes me sweat a bit, but it was the two-three hour walk I took after that really sealed the deal. It was 32 degrees Celsius and HUMID! And nothing! No trickling pit sweat – I was damp, but that’s normal, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. And. I. Didn’t. Stink. I didn’t even smell. I couldn’t believe it.

The following day, after a night of sticky, sweaty sleep. I still didn’t smell. Amazing! 

The second road-test was my volunteering job at the local organic market. I did the set-up shift, which involves a lot of lifting and hauling and running around – and yes, I was damp (not sopping), but I didn’t smell. Still nothing! I consider these two situations to be the ultimate road-tests for me. 

I really cannot say enough good stuff about this deodorant. When you make it for yourself, you will know what I am talking about. The best part is: clay is good for you. Bentonite clay draws toxins from your skin, which is a good thing to put next to your lymph-nodes. Good for us all, but especially if you have fibroadenomas like I do 😦

Thank you Sherri from Overthrow Martha! You have made my life better!