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.

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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 too will 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 realized a while ago, that the only botanicals that seem to really hold true and stay fast, are roots or botanical extracts, like indigo. Extracts make sense, because they are no longer tied to/in the cellulose of the plant. But does anyone know why this is for the roots – alkanet root, tumeric root, madder root? 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 😀