March 27, 2008
Action Man: Making Soap
By -- Liam.Gowing @latimes.com
SOAP. On a rope, in a bar, in a jar, it's one of those everyday inventions we take for granted. And it is an invention. Unlike salt, it doesn't occur naturally or, like cinnamon, grow on trees. So what is soap anyway, and how is it made?
These were the questions I brought to the Urban Craft Center, a spacious, loft-style workshop in Santa Monica. Launched last year by Angharad Jones, a longtime crafter, the UCC offers classes in a stupefying array of home arts and crafts, including soap-making, which, at $80, is the Rolls Royce of the curriculum.
Taught by UCC studio manager Carolyn Crosse, my two-hour tutorial began with a short history. "Soap is actually a pretty ancient art," Crosse explained, citing its accidental discovery by Romans washing their clothes in rivers at the foot of sacrificial altars, where ash and animal fats would collect after rain.
Fascinating. Would my classmates -- three congenial thirtysomething ladies -- and I begin our class by likewise sacrificing a goat to Apollo? Not quite.
Pursuing a strictly vegan recipe, we were each given a Crock-Pot set to "low," three kinds of oil -- coconut, palm and olive -- a beaker of water and a tub of powdered lye. Following directions, we dumped the oils into the pot and, while waiting for them to heat up, selected two or three prefab soap molds and perused an assortment of optional fragrances such as lavender and peppermint.
Then, after donning gloves, glasses and gas masks, we added the highly alkaline lye to the water. Expecting explosions, smoke or at least a little fizzle, I was slightly underwhelmed. The beaker just got hot.
"That's the chemical reaction," Crosse explained.
"What kind of reaction?" I asked, intrigued.
"A chemical reaction," she replied.
With the lye dissolved moments later, we dumped the solution into the hot pot with the oil, whisked it together with an electric mixer until it took a meringue-like consistency, and waited for "saponification" to occur, which was pretty neat: The mixture expanded like a soufflé; fatty pools of glycerin rose to the surface. And voila! After about 20 minutes, we had soap, ready -- after an ounce or two of fragrance was added -- to be spread into the molds, where it would harden into bars overnight.
All in all, soap-making was fun. I came away with a dozen handsome bath bars and the knowledge to make more. Still, for $80, I think I should have gotten a goat -- not to sacrifice necessarily -- maybe just to have a goat.