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.

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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.

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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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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.

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!

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Once upon a Breast Milk Soap: Great Cakes Soap works October challenge

INTRODUCTION

When I stumbled across Amy Warden’s October challenge “Alternative Liquids” I knew I had to join. I have never soaped a challenge before, in fact, I haven’t been soaping for very long at all. Last year I discovered soapmaking and didn’t stop until I became pregnant and couldn’t deal with much anything with a smell. Flash forward to 2015: I’m a new mother, nursing every 2 hours and I’m sitting on a large bag of frozen breast milk. Wondering what to do with it I remembered a recipe I’d seen in a soaping book last year. Now I can’t remember who the author was, but I remember that she called the soap something like “Mother and Baby.” (I can’t find any mention of this book online anymore – it wasn’t Casey Makela, because she wasn’t allowed to publish her recipe for breast milk soap in her book). The basic gist of it was that nothing is as nourishing and beneficial to your baby as your breast milk, inside and out. I’d recently read about women curing baby acne, cradle cap, eye infections, and various nicks and cuts with breast milk, and I knew from before that milks and milk soaps are very soothing for your skin – so breast milk soap it is! I made one trial batch, having never made a milk soap before, and was very happy with the result. Not only had I found a way to use and preserve my milk, but I had soap for my baby to last her whole childhood – a soap that is as natural and customized to her skin as can be. To date, I have preferred not to use too much soap on my baby because baby skin is so sensitive. This homemade milk soap will be gentle enough even for a little baby.

RESEARCH

Recently breast milk has been in the spotlight as the new old super food. Apparently in China it’s become a hot commodity and body builders buy it online because it contains human growth hormones. But the benefits of breast milk have even been picked up by the mainstream: in Chicago you can get breast milk facials!

So what is it about breast milk that makes people go ga-ga? And why would you use it to make soap? Apparently it has antibacterial and antiseptic properties. It also contains “anti-infectious and anti-inflammatory agents, growth factors, and prebiotics” (source). Although many of the bioactive agents may not survive freezing and heating (not to mention the lye) there are many beneficial fatty acids in human milk that do. Presumably, breast milk soap would have just as many if not more properties than say, goats milk soap, because it isn’t pasteurized and store bought milks still make a pretty nourishing bar of soap. The fats in human milk are composed of “palmitic and oleic acid” (source) as well as up to 20% of lauric and capric acid (source) (you may recognize these from the soapcalc). Lauric acid is often recognized as beneficial in treating acne and inflamed skin and also exists in coconut oil and goats milk (source and source). Caprylic Acid/Capric Triglyceride, again also found in goats milk and coconuts, act in a similar way by being a very gently anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal. But the main cosmetic use of the caprylic and capric triglyceride is as an emollient or moisturizing agent. Finally breast milk, like other milks, contains lactic acid which acts as an exfoliant, gently buffing away dead skin cells: this is why milk products, including breast milk, works so well as a facials leaving your skin feeling fresh and clean.

Milk soaps are some of the most gentle soaps on the market, and are considered perfect for children and people with sensitive skin. The difference between using say goats milk and using breast milk is of course that it is uniquely designed, and exists expressly, for your baby; to match their make-up not only as humans but as individuals. The fact that breast milk changes during the course of your child’s development is amazing in itself, but it also changes during the course of a feed. This may be worth considering when you express your milk for soap, because the “foremilk” tends to be higher in sugars and the “hindmilk” higher in fats. Typically, the higher the fat content of your milk, the silkier and more moisturizing your soap will be. All to say that breast milk is a substance that your baby’s body recognizes and responds well to, or rather, thrives on: it is “uniquely suited to the human infant, both in its nutritional composition and in the non-nutritive bioactive factors that promote survival and healthy development” (source). And I believe that if it’s good enough to eat, it’s good enough to put on your skin 🙂

SUMMARY

Ok, here’s a run down of the properties and benefits of breast milk and using breast milk in soap:

  1. It has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties
  2. Lactic acid polishes off dead skin cells
  3. The fatty acids may help treat acne, and other skin issues
  4. Is it moisturizing
  5. It is gentle (more gentle than if you were to just use water)
  6. It is uniquely suited to your baby, and humans in general
  7. It is safe – you know where it comes from (assuming you are using your own)
  8. It’s ecological: requires no transport, packaging, farming, etc.
  9. Making soap with breast milk is a great way to preserve it for your baby
  10. If you have lots of it, making soap is better than letting it go to waste

On that note, if you do have an oversupply please consider donating to your local milk bank.

Now, enough research – onto the soap!

Making this soap was no fairy tale, but it was kind of epic. It went from being Rosebud Baby Soap, to Green Monster Soap, to Lavender Baby. Here is what happened (if you want to just see the video, scroll down):

MAKING THE SOAP

Since this is a milk soap, the first thing to do is freeze the milk so that it doesn’t burn when I add the lye. Also, I make sure to have lots of ice so that I can put the lye mixture in an ice bath. I also hope that if I soap at a low temperature that more of the nutrients will survive. IMG_20151012_180152

Next, I measure out my oils. For this recipe I am doing a Bastille type with added Shea butter and my secret ingredient for the superfat, a rose-hip maceration and rose hip oil. Rose hips are rich in vitamin C (twice as much as oranges) and as a child I had to eat a lot of rose hip soup for this very reason.IMG_20151012_182241

To my oils I added vitamin E, GSE (grapefruit seed extract) and sodium lactate to give my soap some longevity because I want my child to be able to use it throughout her childhood.

When the breast milk and lye were both dissolved I added it to my oils. I believe that both liquids were at about 80F. Right away, before I even started stick blending, I could tell that the mixture was going to trace quickly. There were white strands in the bottom just from stirring and I blended it quickly to emulsion. At that point I added the lavender EO (not very much, because I like it really mild) and then separated my batter into two parts. One I added half of the superfat and the other I divided further into three parts: each with incrementally more rose hip powder dissolved in the rose hip oils. The idea was to get three shades of pink. I gave them a quick whisk with my small whisk and then set them aside to blend the neutral soap to trace and pour it. I didn’t have to blend the soap very much at all to get to trace and it set up very thick while I flitted about. I decided that one of the sections was too pale and added more rose hip powder to it. Then one by one, they all started going green.SAM_5980.AVI_snapshot_00.04_[2015.10.15_21.20.08] At first I thought maybe my whisk was aluminum and that it reacted with the soap, but the one part that hadn’t been touched was also turning green. Now afterwards I realize that rose hip powder must be a kind of ph indicator just like red cabbage. I proceeded as planned and tried to do a Holly swirl with the thick green batter, knowing in my heart that I’d end up with a discolored plop design. SAM_5981.AVI_snapshot_00.22_[2015.10.15_12.21.25]

What I had imagined was a drop design throughout the soap, sort of like a milk drop. But I thought a drop swirl would be too boring, so I aimed to combine an in-the-pot swirl with a drop swirl using only two colours: the natural soap colour which will be an off white, and three shades of pink. I had recently bought some rose hip powder on the advice of a clerk at an herb store and was really excited to try it. Originally, I was going to call this soap “Rosebud Baby” but that went out the window when I saw my soap batter turn green! I was even more surprised the next day when I peeked under the cover to see the soap has completely neutralized and turned a light tan colour!SAM_5984.AVI_snapshot_00.17_[2015.10.15_20.18.34] And of course, when I cut it, it was clear that the soap had set up too quickly to get much of a drop. More like, plop.

When I cut it I discovered that the rose hip batter had maintained some colour – a tan, beigy colour – but clearly defined from the uncoloured soap at least. There were no swirls at all, or even lines (now two days later you can make out a few faint lines). Clearly the amount I put in each section wasn’t enough to differentiate it in its tan state. I’m sure if it had stayed pink it would have been more visible. Also, the soap set up soo quickly that my pour didn’t penetrate the bottom layer – it just pushed it down. Oddly enough, I ended up with a soap looking much like I had first envisioned it: as a bosom leaking milk (I got the inspiration from Nourri Source’s logo, the Quebec nursing organization). The tan coloured “breast” with the milk coloured soap underneath.  SAM_5986.AVI_snapshot_08.57_[2015.10.15_20.33.15]

In the end, I have a perfectly good set of softly scented lavender breast milk soap. No bells and swirls, but it’s filled with motherly love…and tons of skin loving nutrients! A great gift for baby!

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Lavender Baby, a Breast Milk Soap – 20 hours cure

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Lavender Baby, a Breast Milk Soap – 40 hours cure

 

VIDEO

PART 1

 

PART 2