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”).

 

 

 

 

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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:

Natural-green-soap-colorants-day2-Flora&Pomona

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:

natural-green-soap-colorants-2wk-cure-Flora&Pomona

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:

natural-green-soap-colorants-6wk-Flora&Pomona

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:

natural-green-soap-colorants-20wk-Flora&Pomona

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 😀