Our class was shredding yucca leaves to make them into soap down by the river. We were rubbing the wet leaves between our hands and producing a thick, frothy soap. When we were done, Pascal Baudar smiled and said he had a surprise to show us. He produced some blocks from his pack that, at first, looked like cheeses of various colors. “I’ve been learning how to make traditional soap,” he said, passing out the pieces for each of us to smell and try. Indeed, these were beautiful and fragrant.
I was most impressed with the mottled- brown block of soap made from the desert creosote bush, which is perhaps the most common high-desert plant. It has a unique, strong aroma. Creosote has long been used by desert Native Americans, who would make a tea that was used for stomach troubles. Additionally, the leaves of the creosote were used to treat chest complaints, as well as for a wash for skin problems, such as psoriasis.
Everyone crowded around Pascal and began asking questions. “Why did you start making soap?” “How did you go about it?” “Are you going to do it as a business?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not going into the soap business.”
Pascal teaches what he calls “urban outdoor skills,” applying outdoor and wilderness skills to city life. His classes included solar cooking, soap-making, how to make gourmet dishes using wild food and other useful topics.
Pascal grew up in the Belgian countryside and spent most of his youth in the woods. He was always interested in learning about wild foods and plants. Now living in California, Pascal says his general interest in natural self-reliance has led him to discover more about soap.
“One aspect of a more natural self-reliance is hygiene,” he explained. “And what is currently sold as ‘hygiene’ products—such as soap, shampoo and laundry detergents—all include a long list of chemicals. So, I started to do research on how one would go about soap-making using local resources to create something more natural.”
Pascal said he began with research and by experimenting with medieval and colonial soap-making techniques after reading old books on the subject. This involved making traditional soap using completely natural elements such as ashes and animal fat.
“Colonial soap-making was much more an art than a science,” he pointed out. Colonial soap was very soft, like a brown, jelly-like substance; salt was added to make it hard. In Pascal’s experience, this sometimes made the soap unsuitable for personal hygiene but usable for laundry.
“ONE ASPECT OF A MORE NATURAL SELF-RELIANCE IS HYGIENE… AND WHAT IS CURRENTLY SOLD AS ‘HYGIENE’ PRODUCTS— SUCH AS SOAP, SHAMPOO AND LAUNDRY DETERGENTS—ALL INCLUDE ALONG LIST OF CHEMICALS.”
SIMPLE INGREDIENTS, SIMPLE PROCESS
Two basic elements are needed for soap-making: lye (a strong, caustic alkaline solution of potassium salts that was originally obtained by leaching wood ashes) and fat, such as animal fat or vegetable oil. Using specific formulas, the lye and fat are mixed together to create a process called “saponification” (conversion into soap).
Pascal experimented until he got his formula just right. Currently, his soaps are made from 100 percent organic oils (olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter, among others).
The inclusion of wild plants in his soap formulas makes them unique. He points out that in the hills of Southern California, you find a lot of aromatic plants, such as various sages, pine and eucalyptus.
“My interest is mostly with wild native plants for several reasons: They are the most readily available in our environment, and I’m personally fond of specific natural fragrances such as sage and creosote.
Plus, there is something quasi-spiritual about being able to use the wilderness’s bounty in your daily life. Living in the city, it creates a feeling of inner balance between the man-made world and the natural world. It makes me feel more ‘complete,’ probably because we city dwellers have a deep desire to connect with the beauty and bounty of the wilderness,” he explained.
AS YOU GET MORE INTERESTED IN SOAP-MAKING, YOU WILL DISCOVER COUNTLESS RECIPES FOR DIFFERENT SOAPS THAT ARE USED FOR DIFFERENT PURPOSES.
MAKING SOAP AT HOME
I learned to make traditional soap via a step-by-step class from Tia Bordner, who lives in the San Diego area. She began making her own soap when one of her daughters continually got rashes from commercial soaps.
From start to finish, a batch of soap takes about two hours to mix. Tia then puts it into rectangular plastic containers, covers them with a blanket and stores them in a closet. The freshly made soap must set at least 18 to 24 hours to harden and should not be disturbed before then.
The following is a good beginner recipe for making a batch of soap. Once you understand the basics, there are many possible variations. (Note that everything is measured by weight, not volume.)
First, get everything together. It would be wise to purchase all the supplies and use them exclusively for your soap-making. These include thermometers, a kitchen scale, measuring glasses, several containers, wooden spoons, and all the oil and lye needed.
Measure 16 ounces of water into a glass container. Add 6 ounces of lye to the water. It will get hot, so put it in a safe location where it can cool down while you’re working on the next step. Rinse the utensils you just used.
Next, weigh 19 ounces of vegetable shortening and put it in a pan to melt. Add 12 ounces of olive oil. At about 150 degrees (F), the shortening will melt. Remove the shortening and oil mixture from the heat. Let it cool to 98 degrees (F).
The lye, which will still be hot, also needs to cool down to 98 degrees (F). (One trick to lower the temperature is to place the hot container into a sink that already has cold water in it. This will lower the temperature of the lye and the oil/ shortening mix more quickly.)
Once the melted oil/shortening mixture and the lye have reached 98 degrees, pour the lye into the oil and mix with a spoon. This is when saponification occurs. As you mix the components, you will notice how the color changes. After a while, the soap will start to set up, and tracing will occur. (“Tracing” is when the soap begins to thicken and comes off your spoon in a line.)
This is the stage to add herbs, flowers, leaves, colors or other ingredients of your choice.
For soap molds/containers, you can use plastic boxes that are available at the stationery section of most stores. Rub the container with oil or shortening before the soap is poured in so it doesn’t stick. Then, pour the soap into the mold, and put the lid on. Place the box in a closet, cover it with a heavy blanket, and leave it undisturbed for 18 to 24 hours.
When it is ready to remove, turn the mold upside down and tap it. The soap will fall out. Because it is still not fully hardened, you can cut it into various shapes over the next few days.
That’s the condensed version for making your own soap. It’s a good way to get started. As you get more interested in soap-making, you will discover countless recipes for different soaps that are used for different purposes.
Soap-making is a great activity that can involve the whole family. It’s educational, and you are creating a necessity of daily life—as well an article of barter. And finally, to make traditional soap is one of those traditional skills that provide you with a greater degree of self-reliance.
MAKING SOAP IS ONE OF THOSE TRADITIONAL SKILLS THAT PROVIDE YOU WITH A GREATER DEGREE OF SELF-RELIANCE.
Throughout North America, many plants have been used for millennia for soap because of their high saponin content. There are many more soap plants than the ones described here. To learn about your area’s local soap plants, talk to someone at a native plant society or in the botany department of a college or university.
AMOLE. There is a fairly widespread member of the lily family that features a tennis ball-sized bulb. It is referred to as “amole” (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) and is found chiefly in the Western states. The long, linear leaves measure a foot or more, and they are wavy on their margins. When you dig down (sometimes up to a foot deep in hard soil), you’ll find the bulb, which is entirely covered in layers of brown fibers.
To use it for soap, you remove the brown fibers until only the white bulb remains. It grows in layers, just like an onion, and you’ll find it sticky and soapy to handle. Take a few layers off the white bulb, add water, and agitate between your hands. A rich lather results, which you can use to take a bath, wash your hair, wash your clothes … or clean your dog.
BOUNCING BET. Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis), also known as “soapwort,” is widespread. It is commonly planted as a garden plant for its pink flowers and grows wild in some areas. It is an introduced plant with little history of use by Native Americans.
Its leaves or roots can be used as soap, although I prefer to use the leaves simply because once you pull the root, the plant is gone. Bouncing Bet is made into soap by agitating the fresh leaves between your hands with water. The quality of lather varies, but this plant is worth knowing about if it happens to grow abundantly in your area.
BUFFALO GOURD. Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) is widely spread throughout the southwestern United States and can be found in remote deserts and even in urban vacant lots. It also goes by such local names as “coyote melon” and “calabazilla.” Its wandering vine rises from a huge underground root, and its stiff leaves often stand upright. They have a unique aroma and are covered with tiny, rigid spines.
To make soap, pinch off a handful of the tender growing tips (or even the older leaves, if that’s all you can find). Add water and agitate between your hands. A frothy, green lather results. Southwestern tribes used it was for washing clothes. However, buffalo gourd is regarded by some as the soap of last resort, because its tiny hairs could cause skin irritation.
MOUNTAIN LILAC. Mountain lilac (Ceanothus species) is fairly common throughout the West. Various Ceanothus species are found throughout the United States; many can be used for soap. Because the botanical features of each species varies, the easiest way to determine if you have a mountain lilac is to take a handful of blossoms, add water, and rub between your hands. If it is a mountain lilac, you’ll get a good lather with a mild aroma.
By late spring to early summer, the flowers fall off, and tiny, sticky, green fruits develop. These, too can, be rubbed between the hands with water to make a good soap. The fruits can also be dried and then reconstituted later when soap is needed.
YUCCA. There are numerous species of yucca found widely, mostly throughout the Plains and Western states. They resemble big pin cushions because of their long, linear, needle-tipped leaves. Although using the yucca root for soap has been widely popularized, I have found that just one leaf is sufficient to make soap.
As you cut off a leaf, be very careful not to poke yourself with one of the sharp tips or slice your fingers on the very sharp edges of the leaf. Strip the leaf into fibers until you have a handful of very thin strands. To make traditional soap of good quality, add water and agitate between your hands.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.