Knitting the Light Fantastic

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Archive for August, 2007

FO – John’s Knucks

Posted by notthatkat on August 28, 2007

Things are still crazy busy getting ready for Con, but I wanted to pop in and show the FO I managed to accomplish this weekend.

John's Knucks

Pattern: Knucks men’s size

Yarn: Moda Dea Washable Wool in black.

Needles: 3.75 (US size 5) 2 16″ circulars

John's Knucks

(It’s very hard to get a good photo of your non-dominant hand like this!)

Started: May 3, 2007

Completed August 25, 2007

Notes: This was a quick and easy knit, the pattern was clearly written, and the fact that it took me nearly 4 months to finish them should not deter you from making a pair. The knitting was done in a few days. Then I stressed about the embroidery. In the pattern they suggested using embroidery floss, but I wasn’t sure about embroidering on wool with cotton. In the end, I used some leftover sock yarn (Cherry Tree Hill Supersock Solid in Loden) and I think they came out great.

The next question was how to embroider on a knit fabric. I tried back stitch, I tried satin stitch. I tried stem stitch. None of them looked quite right. Then I read the pattern directions and used the recommended chain stitch. Much better.

John's Knucks

I hope John likes them as much as I do.

I’m leaving tonight after work and driving to my friends’ house that is about half way to Atlanta. (I can make the trip easily in one day, but this puts me in Atlanta mid morning without having to set out at ‘0-dark-early in the morning.) By mid-morning tomorrow I will be at the Dragon*Con site and getting last minute issues worked out. We really get going on Thursday, although the con doesn’t officially start until Friday. I’m not sure if I’ll have time to post, but I’ll try to pop in and say hi and maybe post some con pictures. Either way, I’ll try to get some good pictures to post here. There will definitely be picture worthy goings-on. I will be back home next Wednesday, although if past history is any indicator, it will probably take me a few days to recover.

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Making Soap Part 3 – Is it done yet?

Posted by notthatkat on August 27, 2007

When we left off last time, I had left the soap mixture to sit overnight and finish the magical chemical process of becoming soap.


I’ve unwrapped the mold and taken off the plastic wrap. Looking good so far. It’s a shame they haven’t perfected smell-o-vision, because it smells wonderful too.

Out of Mold

I untaped the freezer paper liner from the sides of the mold, unfolded the corners and peeled it away from the sides and bottom. Next step is to cut it into bars.


I use a long thin metal blade I got in the drywall section of the local hardware store. It is just a bit longer than my mold so I can cut the block lengthwise all at once. They come in various widths and are cheep and cut really well. I’ve looked at other cutting systems and molds, but for now, this one works for me.


Once I have my block divided in half, I each part into bars (since I don’t offer my soap for sale, I don’t stress evenness too much. I tend to give away the larger bars and keep the smaller ones for my own use).


At this point, if the wrinkles on the top, now on one long edge of each bar, bother you, you could cut or shave it off. If you wanted to, you could bevel the edges as well. Personally, I go for the rough handmade look that doesn’t result in lots of trimmings (which can be re-batched or otherwise used if you choose to do so) I figure within the first few uses, any irregularities in the soap will even themselves out.

The bars of soap are still quite soft, and a rather harsh as well. While I don’t wear gloves at this stage, there is still a fair bit of lye present in fresh cold processed soap. The bars must cure to allow them to dry and finish becoming soap.

Laid out to cure

I lay my soap out on sheet of plastic canvas and put them up on an out of the way shelf. I turn them every few days to allow them to dry evenly. I let my bars cure for 4 weeks before they are used. At this time, all the lye is gone, the excess moisture has evaporated, and the resulting bar is the wonderful, skin-pampering delight that I have come to know and love.

So that’s the basic process of making soap. I’ve deliberately stayed away from getting to deep into the geeky chemical stuff that underlies the process (there’s a pretty good summary of the chemistry and history of soap making here), so as to not scare away the uninitiated. However, the process of making soap from base ingredients is at it’s heart a chemical reaction. If you want to be able to evaluate published recipes, and especially to formulate your own soap recipes, you will need to learn about this stuff, as well as the properties of various ingredients and what they contribute to the finished soap.

To that end, I’ve included a list of sources and resources that I found helpful when I was learning the craft and return to over and over again.

Suppliers: (Most have various recipes for soap and other skin care products as well as lye calculators)
From Nature With Love This is the primary supplier I use, they have a wide variety, competitive prices, and are on the east coast, an important consideration when you consider freight cost on larger quantities of base oils.
Snowdrift Farm Another east coast supplier, I’ve found them to have great customer service and arguably the best formulary online – a source of inspiration as well as instruction.
Majestic Mountain Sage This one is located in Utah, so I haven’t done so much large/heavy orders from them, but I like their containers and the fragrance and flavor oils I’ve gotten from them. If they were closer I would probably get fixed oils from them as everything I’ve gotten from them has been excellent. They are in Utah, so those of you in the American Southwest/West – they would be a good option.
Rainbow Meadow This one is located in Michigan. Melody has outstanding essential oils and given her commitment to quality, I would expect anything I received from her to be of excellent quality. Melody runs the now-mostly-defunct Yahoo group I followed obsessively when I was first learning this stuff.

Books: (I am a book person, and I have bought a lot of soap making books, although not so much in recent years – I’ve been more focused on making my own formulations)
Essentially Soap, by Robert S McDaniel, now sadly out of print, was my first soap making book. While I’ve only made a couple recipes out of it, the information imparted on the properties of various oils is invaluable. “Dr. Bob” is a retired oleochemist (fat scientist) and his technical information warms my science geek heart. If chemistry scares you, don’t start with this one. But if you can pick up an inexpensive copy, it is a great resource for any soap library.
The Natural Soap Book and The Soapmaker’s Companion, both by Susan Miller Cavitch are probably the most mixed received books about soap making. Ms Cavitch holds strong opinions about the “right” and “wrong” way to make soap and feels that her way is the only way. Many others disagree with her. All of her recipes use extremely heavy lye discounts at the risk of rancidity from too much fat remaining in the finished bars. I have always re-calculated her recipes for a lesser discount with very good results. Love or hate her, however, she does provide some very good information in both books regarding the process of making soap and the properties and strengths and weaknesses of various oils, scents, colorants, etc. Also, I have yet to find a lotion/cream recipe I like better than the ones presented in The Soapmaker’s Companion.
Smart Soapmaking by Anne L Watson – I haven’t added this one to my soap library mostly because when it came out, it was more basic than my skill level. However, I’ve looked through it, and it seems like a good beginning soap book.
The Everything Soapmaking Book by Alicia Grosso – Don’t let the fact that this one comes from a “Dummies”-like franchise put you off. This book is another good primer on how to make soap.
Finally under the category of “advanced” techniques we have Making Transparent Soap and Making Natural Liquid Soaps both by Catherine Failor. Both of these books describe special techniques designed to make the soaps described in the titles. Both use hot processing as well as special ingredients and/or equipment, so they are best attempted after you have completed a few basic batches of cold process soap.

On the Web:
A quick Google Search will yield lots of online resources for making soap. Just remember that many sites are designed to sell soap making supplies as well, and often include expensive or exotic ingredients which may have a hefty price tag. These ingredients might add a lot to a soap recipe, but I feel it’s best to get several batches of basic soap made and get a good feel for the process before investing in such ingredients. You will have failed batches, more so at first.

A basic recipe:
Coconut Oil – 10 oz
Olive Oil – 18 oz
Palm Oil – 12 oz
Lye – 5.6 oz
Water – 10-15 fl oz (more water will yield a softer bar after incubation)

You can enrich this recipe by decreasing the Olive Oil to 16 oz and adding 2 oz of Shea butter.

Both formulations have about a 6.5% lye discount (excess oil v/s lye consumed in the reaction) which should result in a nice mild soap.

Posted in soapmaking | 3 Comments »

Making Soap – Part 2: Kitchen Chemistry in Action

Posted by notthatkat on August 24, 2007

When we left, we had a hot lye solution cooling on the counter. The next step is to prepare the oils. I use a mixture of coconut, palm and olive oil as my default base recipe, but I usually enrich it with other oils that are good for the skin. For this batch I am using both shea butter and hemp oil as enriching oils. The coconut and palm oil and the shea butter are solid at room temperature, and I tend to measure them first.

Coconut oil at room temperature

I buy coconut and palm oils by the five gallon bucket, although you may want to start with a smaller amount until you get a few batches under your belt.

Solid and Liquid Oils

All the oils are measured again by weight directly into the pan I will use to make the soap. When I do bigger batches where the total weight of oils and pan exceed the weight capacity of my scale, I measure the solid oils individually into a smaller bowl and dump them in the pot. I still measure my liquid oils in my pan so I don’t have to worry so much about how much I leave behind.

Heating Oils

The next step is to heat the oils and melt the solid ones. This can be done on a kitchen stove, but I bought a portable burner a few years ago for demonstration purposes and use when making soap away from home which I find handy to have set up right in my work area. I use stainless steel pots and utensils since they do not react to the lye. Again, I can repurpose these for dyeing, but I do not use any of my soap making equipment for food.

Almost melted

I heat the oils until they are almost completely melted (the remaining pieces will melt soon enough), then remove from the heat. At this point the oils are at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, while the lye has cooled down to about 145. What temperature to mix the two solutions together at is something of a matter of personal preference, and opinions vary widely as to the “ideal” temperature for soap making. I find that I can make very good cold process soap anywhere between 90 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit. I think it is more important to have your two solutions close in temperature, and I try to have them no more than 5 degrees apart within that range. The lye solution will cool faster than the oils, so I try not to get my oils too hot. This time I hit it about right, and I mixed when the oils measured 125 and the lye solution 127.

Mixing Phases

Now I mix the two solutions or “phases” by adding the lye solution to the oils in my soap pan. I lower the measuring cup very far into my pan and am careful not to splash the lye solution.

Layers in soap pot

You probably know that oil and water don’t mix, and at this point there is a layer of oil (oil phase) floating on top of the dissolved lye solution (aqueous phase) The only contact between the two is the thin interface where they meet. Left alone, this would not become soap any time soon. I need to get better contact between my ingredients. You can stir by hand; that’s how I made my first few batches. A better (and easier) choice is to get an immersion blender (stick blender). You might be able to find one at a yard sale or thrift store, but they usually only run about 10 bucks at the local big box store, and I keep two on hand just for making soap.

Begin Mixing

As the two parts begin to combine, the mixture turns cloudy. I mix until it is a homogeneous opaque solution.

Mixed but not thickened

The mixture is mixed but still pretty thin. At this point, I change from constant mixing to pulse mixing, running the blender for about a minute followed by a minute rest so as not to burn out the motor. I am trying to get that elusive state known as trace. The mixture will thicken and if left to sit, the oil and water will not separate from one another.

Thin trace

This is the earliest stage of trace. The mixture is beginning to coat the blender, and drips remain visible on the surface for a second or two.


I’m not sure how well this shows up, but in the center, you can see the impression from where I removed the blender. It is about the consistency of instant pudding before you chill it and it sets up. You can mix to a thicker trace, but I only find that necessary if I am adding exfoliants (cornmeal, ground oats, etc) that tend to sink unless the mixture is very thick.

Now I’m ready to add my fragrance; for this batch, I’m using patchouli essential oil. I use both fragrance oils (synthetic) and essential oils (natural) depending on the effect I’m trying to achieve, but I prefer essential oils when feasible. I use fragrances for scents that have no natural equivalent (fruit scents except citrus, for example, cannot be found in natural form) and for ones that are insanely expensive (eg. rose, jasmine, sandalwood, vanilla). YMMV.

Measuring Essential Oil

I measured my essential oil while I was waiting for my lye and oil to cool so it was ready and waiting for me. Once again I weigh my scents and typically use 0.7 oz of scent (total if I’m doing a blend) per pound of oil. I am making a 2.5 pound batch of soap, so I measured out ~1.75 oz of patchouli oil. Some people choose to scent by volume, and that is fine; just pick a method that works for you and be consistent. For stronger scents (mints and some spices) I scent less heavily – 0.4 to 0.5 oz per pound. For lighter scents (citrus) I scent more heavily – 0.9 oz per pound.

Adding scent

I add my scent now and mix it in well (my mixing picture came out very blurry). Most other additives are also added at this point, including exfoliants, most colorants, and dried herbs or citrus peel. Some essential oils (clove is notorious) and fragrance oils can speed up the reaction and cause the batch of soap to seize, turning from a thick liquid to a near solid very quickly or forming grainy particles. Others (more fragrances than essentials) can react to the lye and change, not always for the better. Often when I am trying out a new scent, I will make a 1 pound test batch to see how my scent or other additive reacts to the soap making process before committing to a large batch.

Fresh soap in mold

I pour the soap in the prepared mold and tap against the table to knock loose any bubbles and level it.

Wrapped in plastic

I cover the soap with plastic wrap and push it down against the surface. This prevents the formation of ash, which while not harmful, is not aesthetically pleasing. I try to smooth out any wrinkles, but I don’t get too obsessive about it.

Soap incubating

I wrap the molded soap in a couple towels or a blanket and let it sit overnight. The chemical reaction that makes soap is an exothermic (heat generating) process, and we want to keep that heat in, as it drives the reaction faster. I let my soap incubate 18 to 24 hours at a minimum. At times I’ve left the soap in the mold for 2 to 3 days before I got around to messing with it again.

Here’s another natural breaking point, so here I’ll stop for another day.

Up next – the great unveiling, or is it done yet?

Posted in soapmaking | 1 Comment »

Making Soap – Part 1: Fun with Lye

Posted by notthatkat on August 22, 2007

I threatened you with a tutorial on making soap, and even though no one specifically asked for it, I’m posting one anyway. Why? Because I want to, and I recently made another batch (cold process), and actually took pictures.

Danger Will Robinson! Knitting content has left the building for the duration. Consider yourself warned. The next few posts will be long and picture intensive and have nothing to do with knitting.

The most important thing to consider when making soap is safety, safety, SAFETY. Lye (or another strong base) is a necessary ingredient in making soap. While there is no lye present in the final bars, the process of making soap involves handling a chemical that will burn skin, eyes, etc. on contact. You shouldn’t be afraid, but you should respect the potential for injury. I have made a lot of soap, and I’ve never had a major problem, but I credit that, at least partially, to using good common sense and some basic safety equipment:

Safety Equipment

I wear gloves and safety glasses through the entire soap making process. I use basic latex gloves, but I’ve seen the rubber kitchen/cleaning gloves used. I use safety glasses as on the top left, but goggles such as are on the top right are also an option. The mask, I don’t use consistently (why I don’t further down), but others consider it very important, and some use a respirator instead.

Fire Extinguisher

A fire extinguisher is always a good idea, although fire risk is minimal with cold process soap.

Vinegar Bath

Finally, I make up a solution that’s about half water and half vinegar with a bit of dish soap thrown in. This is good to have on hand in case of accidental contact with lye or caustic soap, and I throw my utensils in when I’m done with them to neutralize.

So, once I have my safety equipment lined up and my work surface covered in newspaper (makes cleanup super easy), my next step is mold preparation

Prepared Mold

Lots of items make good soap molds, as long as they are not porous and can handle a bit of heat. I’ve not had much success in using fancy detailed molds with cold processed soap. It is still fairly soft when unmolding a day or two later; I never tried leaving it in the mold longer, but I think such molds are best left for melt and pour. My favorite molds are simple wooden boxes I put together myself. The one above is the smaller of the two I’ve made. I line these molds with freezer paper, with the plastic side to the inside, folded to fit the mold and the overhang taped down. I like small Glad Ware style containers for small (test) batches, usually about a pound. But this is my mold of choice for larger batches.

Soap is made by the reaction between a strong base (lye) and the fatty acids of fats. Many types of fats can and have been used. Tallow (rendered beef fat) and lard are the traditional animal fats for soap making. I use a combination of vegetable oils as my primary base, although some animal products like beeswax and milk can enhance a soap recipe tremendously.

I always run my soap recipe through a lye calculator, whether it’s one I’ve made up or someone else’s. I’ve seen published formulations with too much or too little lye and the results are not good either way. The first lye calculator I ever used is still my favorite, but good ones can also be found here and here. These are all provided by soap suppliers that I’ve been very pleased with, BTW.

The next step is to measure out the lye and water and mix them. If you haven’t already, this is when you need to put on glasses and gloves (and mask or respirator if you prefer)

Lye and Water

All of the base ingredients for soap except water, should be measured by weight, and you need a scale accurate enough to give you a fair bit of precision for the size batch you are preparing. I use a postal scale that measures up to 11 pounds, and is accurate to a tenth of an ounce or a gram (I use the same one for weighing yarn and fiber and dyeing). I still have a bit of the Red Devil lye that I stocked up before it got pulled from all the store shelves. Once it runs out, I hope to find a chemical supply house within a reasonable driving distance. Otherwise I will have to suck it up and pay hazmat fees, in which case, I will probably buy in bulk quantities. Stupid meth-heads.

For water I use distilled water as the mineral content and treatments of tap water can lead to problems in both the reaction and final product. It is the one ingredient that precise measurement is not critical and a range of volumes can be used. It is primarily a vehicle to get the lye into a liquid state where it can react with the oil. Too much water yields a very soft soap that may have problems getting out of the mold. My formulation called for 10-15 ounces and I used 12 ounces (about 180 mL for those of you on metric)

Next we are going to mix our lye into our water:

Add Lye to Water

Important Safety Note #1 – Always, always add the lye to the water. Never do it the other way around.

Important Safety Note #2 – This process will give off fumes which are very irritating and bad to breathe in. I always do it outside and keep my face away from the container. I don’t have a problem that way, and don’t notice a difference with or without the mask. I’ve not used a respirator, but this is why some people advocate using one. If you mix them inside, make sure you are in a well ventilated area (on the stove, with the exhaust fan running would be a good choice). If you’re outside, make sure you’re upwind.

Important Safety Note #3 – This solution will get very hot (close to boiling) Be sure to use a heat safe container. I use a Pyrex measuring cup, but I’ve also used stainless steel bowls.

Mixing lye

Stir the mixture, keeping your face well away from the container (awkward stirring at arm’s length, but best if you can manage) The solution will get cloudy, and the lye may cake on the bottom, which feels gritty against the spoon. Mix until the lye is all dissolved, then let it sit.

Clear Lye solution

Once the lye solution is clear, it is no longer giving off fumes and is safe to bring back inside. The container is still hot, so be careful. By the time I got the container back inside and measured temperature, it was still about 175 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hot Lye

This seems like a good breaking point, so I’ll stop here for now. Hopefully, I haven’t lost too many of you. Up next – kitchen chemistry in action.

Posted in soapmaking | 2 Comments »

FO – Silk Socks

Posted by notthatkat on August 20, 2007

I finished them Thursday night, but I’m just now getting around to blogging them.  As Con time is rapidly approaching, things are getting pretty crazy between getting ready for Con and getting ready to be away from home/work on top of the usual insanity that is my life.   As such, I probably won’t be able to post here very often for the next couple weeks.  Don’t worry, I’m not knitting very much either, so you won’t be missing much.  I do have some ideas banked up including a partially written soap tutorial, so if I can finish up the last part, I’ll post that starting later this week.

Silk Socks

Pattern: None, as such.  A pair of simple stockinette socks knit over 64 stitches with 1X1 ribbing, hourglass heels and wedge toes.

Yarn: Regia Silk Color #0189 aka Nairobi

Needles: 2.75 mm (US2) 16″ circulars (2 socks/2 circs per usual)

Started: August 1, 2007

Finished: August 16, 2007

Solstice Slip

I started a pair of Solstice Slip socks – these are the June Rockin’ Sock Club offering.  My delay in getting my RSC socks knitted should be taken in no way as ambivalence or  indifference for the yarn or the patterns sent.  I just have been busy with other projects.  Words can not express my love for this yarn – the pattern is a bit fiddly, but the resulting sock so far is coming out nicely.

My CDR, alas, has gotten very little attention.  I’ve done a round here and a round there, but not enough to post a progress photo.

Posted in FO, socks, summer of socks | 1 Comment »