Knitting the Light Fantastic

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Archive for the ‘soapmaking’ Category

Experimental Crafting

Posted by notthatkat on November 16, 2007

It’s hard to believe a whole week’s gone by, and I haven’t posted since Monday. The older I get, the faster the time just seems to whip right by. I have been busy in the interim, both working and playing. I’ve made significant progress on a couple of my knitting projects:


I finished the body of my Thermal just this evening. It’s off to sleeve island for this project.

Pirate Hat

I also finished the main part of my pirate hat and have only a little bit of the lining left to go. I look for this one to be an FO before the weekend is done.

I’ve also been doing a bit of experimentation in a couple crafting arenas:

Fractal Handspun Project

I pre-drafted this roving and have begun spinning it. It was inspired by the article in the summer 2007 issue of Spin-Off on fractal stripe spinning. The article described splitting a single length of space dyed roving to create singles with color repeats of different lengths the were then plied together. The roving I wanted to use was skinny enough I didn’t think I could split it enough to get the effect described. Instead I divided the roving in equal halves. The ball at the top was dyed with long repeats, while the other half was dyed in much shorter lengths and split once.

Fractal Handspun Project

I have almost finished spinning the roving with the shorter repeats. I’m hoping once it is plied the very bright yellow will be toned down somewhat by the other colors. The colors are divided about evenly, but that one really dominates on the bobbin. This whole project is an out-on-a-limb experiment, and even if I wind up with clownish yarn, well, I figure it’ll look okay peeping out between blue jeans and tennies.

Soap Balls

Last night and again tonight, I made soap in Christmas scents (Christmas Pine last night, Hollyberry tonight) When I mentioned making soap for Christmas, a friend suggested I made soap balls. I’ve made soap balls before, but only when a batch of soap came out soft and refused to unmold easily into nice neat bars. I’ve never planned to make my soap into balls in advance.

So I thought, what do I need to do to make soap that can be turned into balls once the initial incubation is done? The soap needs to be soft enough that it can be shaped and manipulated without cracking or flaking, but solid enough to hold its shape when I’m done with it. The answer I came up with was to increase the water content. This worked like a charm. The soap was nice and pliable and bent to my wishes.

If you want to try this at home, I used my basic recipe (scroll down to the bottom), but increased the water to 16 oz. The next day, I cut the soap into bars and kneaded it and shaped it like play dough. Make sure you wear gloves for this, as the soap is still quite harsh at this stage. I don’t bother with gloves when I am just cutting bars, but this much contact with raw soap is rather bad for the skin. Then lay out the bars to cure as normal.

After just a few hours, they feel much drier and are firming up. They should be just about perfect in 3-4 weeks, just in time for gifts for co-workers and acquaintances. Tomorrow, the soap I made tonight will get the same treatment. And I might make another batch, not specifically holiday, but because the soaping bug seems to have bit hard lately.


Posted in Pirate Hat, soapmaking, spinning, Thermal | 1 Comment »

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 »

Happy Memorial Day

Posted by notthatkat on May 28, 2007

For those of you in the US, Happy Memorial Day. For those in the rest of the world, Happy Monday. I worked today, but we were pretty slow, so it wasn’t too bad.

Curtain Report
I made much progress this weekend on the curtain and am down to my last dozen rows on the last lace repeat. The stokinette part should whiz right by, assuming I do not do stupid things like drop a stitch and not notice for 4 inches, like I did on the first one. Unfortunately, these curtains do not make for very interesting blogging as they aren’t photogenic in progress. I will post photos when they’re done and blocking, as well as installation shots, but until then, you’ll just have to take my word on it.

Gimlet Socks
The Gimlet socks are past the toes and all on two circs now:

Gimlet socks

This is my first time making thong toe socks, and I chose to do them toe up because their intended recipient has much larger feet than I and I don’t want to run out of yarn. They look a bit like Franken-socks, but they fit well, and she is happy:

Gimlet Socks

The soap is cut into bars and curing:

Cut Soap

On the lower right is the hot processed soap while the cold processed bars are the lighter ones to the left and on top. The cold processed soap will need a good 4 weeks to finish becoming soap. It was maybe 70% done when we unmolded and cut, but it’s still pretty harsh and I wouldn’t recommend using it right now, unless you like burning skin. But once it’s done, there is nothing like it.

The hot processed soap can theoretically be used at any time, but I like to let it cure about a week to let it dry and give any unreacted areas a chance to do their thing.  It looks rougher because it was semi-solid when it went into the mold (about the consistency of Vaseline) and was cooling/solidifying as we were putting it in the mold.  I could trim off the rough edges, but after a couple uses, it’ll smooth itself out, and that’s all good soap there.

I used sheets of plastic canvas to allow air circulation and turn the bars every day or two for the first week or so, then a couple times a week for the remaining cure period.

Customer Service
To my way of thinking, what separates a great yarn enabler retailer from a merely good one often comes down to customer service. It’s (relatively) easy to take and fill orders. It’s what happens when there’s a problem that really shows what a company is made of.

A while back, I showed you the yarn I got for my Sockapalooza pal. I had settled on the Cherry Tree Hill solid yarn and a pattern and started winding the skein. As I wound I found a splice in the yarn:

CHH splice

Not great, but close enough to one end that I can probably just start after that. Then I felt another. And another. And several more. I was less than half way through winding when I had decided that I could not use this yarn for socks intended for a gift for someone else. By the time I was done, I knew that I didn’t want to use it at all, and emailed Allison at Simply Socks Yarn Company and told her about the problem.  She contacted me within the hour to let me know that she would, of course, replace the skein.  Furthermore, she had contacted Cherry Tree Hill and they wanted the skein back to determine the source of the problem.  The yarn is on its way back to Vermont, and a replacement skein should come my way shortly.  Allison’s quick response and clear desire to fix the problem turned a disappointing experience into one of the more pleasant customer service experiences I’ve had in a long time.  I will certainly do business with her again.

Since I had already shifted mental gears to the Fleece Artist yarn and a different pattern that works better with a variegated yarn, I will probably go forward with that once the Gimlet socks are done, and make myself a pair of Embossed Leaves from the CTH yarn.

Unfortunately, we lost 2 of the 4 kittens.  They were the smallest, weakest two, and they just faded over the first few days.  Mama Cat didn’t seem to have a lot of milk, and even though we were supplementing with bottle feedings, I’m not sure if they were just not getting enough nutrition, or if the time Mama Cat was in labor/placental separation/lack of oxygen was a factor.  The other two were doing well when they left our hospital on Friday, and we did send milk home.

Anita asked why she was in labor so long.  Frankly, I don’t know.  This is not a problem I see very often in cats, and most cases of dystocia (difficulty/inability to give birth)  I see are in cats that have a prior history of pelvic fractures or traumatic injury.  This cat was semi-feral, so I had very little history on her, but her pelvis did not appear narrowed at the time of surgery.  I am assuming that it was an issue of inadequate contractions, as she had not moved any of the kittens down into the birth canal.  The question is somewhat moot, as I spayed her while I had her in surgery.



Posted in animals, soapmaking, sockapolooza, socks, WIP, work | Leave a Comment »