Soapmakng-CMA-art - 9/15/00
“Soapmaking in the Current Middle Ages” by Gillian Fhlaitheamhail (Fraya Davis)
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Date: Wed, 27 Aug 1997 18:56:20 -0600 (MDT)
From: John or Fraya Davis <gameroom at infowest.com>
To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Soap Making Article
Thank you everyone for your many requests for and interest in my soap making
article. In fact, I had so many requests, I couldn't keep up with them, so
here's the article for everyone :) I'd love to hear your feedback,
especially after you've tried a batch. In service, Gillian
Soap Making in the Current Middle Ages
by Gillian Fhlaitheamhail (Fraya Davis)
MoAS for the Incipient Shire of Ard Ruadh in the Kingdom of Artemisia
My research has shown that soap making is one of the oldest crafts known to
man. Perhaps even as early as "cave man" when they discovered cleansing
bubbles near their campfires after a rain. It wouldn't have taken them long
to figure out how to make a lye solution from wood ash and mixing it with
the fats from their meats. Even now it is well known to many outdoorsy
types to throw a bit of ash into their pots with a bit of water to break up
When soap making actually came about, is completely unknown. It is assumed
that a crude soap, made of fat and wood ashes, was used several thousand
years ago. It is further thought to have been taken to Gaul be sea during
the 6th century B.C. It spread north to Germany, west to Spain, and east to
Italy. There is documentation of soap-making centers, or guilds, in Europe
by 800 A.D. Soap reached England by the 10th century, and in 1192 the monk
Richard of Devizes is known to have made a remark about the nuber of
soap-makers in Bristol and the smelly nature of their occupation. There was
also a "sopehouse" at Bishopgate in London in the 15th century and another
soap works near Bankside, London, during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. During
this time, however, bathing by the nobility had lost its popularity, mostly
due to the outrageous clothing worn that had to be sewn on the person.
Up until 1790, when Nicolas Leblanc, a French chemist, discovered how to
make sodium hydroxide from common salt, soaps were very crude indeed, having
to rely on the leachings of water through wood ash to make the alkali used
in making them. They were often dark colored and unattractive to look at;
however, they were a luxury in Tudor times. Besides the leachings, the
soaps were made with tallow; rendered whale, beef and mutton fats. These
also attributed to some of the rather unpopular attitude we now have for
homemade soap. Later soaps were often made from vegetable oils; however,
some of the best soap and also the oldest recorded is made of olive oil. It
earned the name of castile soap due to its origin in Castile, Spain. Soaps
made of olive oil were known in ancient Rome and were later imported to England.
From all the horror stories that I have heard about the homemade soap
"Grandma used to make", it's a wonder the craft has gained so much recent
popularity. However, I have found that recent innovations have made the
making of soap at home a near perfect science with incredibly delightful
results. I am including two recipes that I have found to be simple and,
possibly, period. Though I have not been able to find exact recipes in
ancient manuscripts, the research that I have found turns my head to three
basic ingredients: lye, fats (or oils) and water. These materials would
have been easily accessible to medieval soap makers, so I have taken it upon
myself to assume they may very well have been all the ingredients used.
To Make A Basic Soap--
Soap making is very simple, but it can be tricky if you do not have the
proper equipment or know a few easy tricks to make it all come together.
One of the most important rules is to be EXTREMELY careful when working with
lye (sodium hydroxide). Is is very caustic and toxic! DO NOT, under any
circumstances, handle lye, the lye solution, or the soap until it has cured
for at least two weeks without protective rubber gloves. IT WILL BURN YOU!
It will also eat right through aluminum, so only use stainless steel or
enamel pots and plastic containers.
8 quart pot
2 quart plastic pitchers (2 of them--mark one "LYE ONLY")
Long-handled wooden, stainless steel, or plastic spoon
2 kitchen (candy) thermometers (as low as 100 degrees)
Safety glasses or goggles
Wooden or stainless steel ladle
Large, clear plastic container with lid (those plastic storage boxes are
perfect) or two or three smaller ones (for easier storage and handling)
Old blanket or towel (wool is best)
Drying rack covered with plastic canvas
1. Wearing gloves, carefully pour lye into plastic pitcher marked "LYE
2. Carefully add water, being sure not to splash. This solution will
heat up to more than 200 degrees, so be extremely careful. Stir with spoon
to make sure all lye has dissolved COMPLETELY.
[NOTE - This may be dangerously in error. This is the comment that was
sent to me by email from Nora Siri Bock, SCAdianly Siri bint Saadia,
<heathentart at visto.com>:
"This is absolutely WRONG...you must always add the lye to
the WATER, not the water to the lye. Pouring water on lye
can, at the least, splash and burn, and at the worst,
create a volcano effect. You must sprinkle the lye flakes
or pellets slowly onto the ice-cold water and stir
constantly to avoid clumping.
I've heard too many horror stories about new soapers adding
water to lye and being badly burned." - Stefan 6/20/00.]
3. Combine fats/oils in sauce pan and melt thoroughly.
4. Now this is the hard part--get the lye solution and the fats to
reach the between 90 and 100 degrees (within 5 degrees of each other) at the
same time. You may begin by putting the lye solution container into a cold
water bath before you begin heating the fats. When the lye reaches around
150 degrees, about what solid fats will reach when fully melted, you can
begin rotating the lye solution and the fats in cold and hot baths to get
them to reach the same temperature between 90 and 100 degrees. This may
take a little practice, but you can heat them up and cool them down as
needed until you get it right. Don't panic if it takes a while. You'll get
the hang of it. Remember, they MUST be within 5 degrees of each other to
5. When they are between 90 and 100 degrees and 5 degrees of each
other, CAREFULLY pour the lye solution into the fats/oils. You will
instantly see the change. It will become opaque and grainy.
6. Stir continually and gently until you see what is called "tracings
or trailings". These appear when the mixture has cooled sufficiently to be
poured into your mold and leave ripples and trails that keep their shape for
a moment before smoothing out into the mixture. Some soaps with lots of
oils don't show their tracings easily. You will have to guess when you
think the mixture is cool enough to pour. These appear as, rather than
ripples, but as faint trails of transparent and opaque mixture. Don't
mistake a pour mixture for tracings!!! Be sure to stir for at least one half
hour before you give up on the tracings. Sometimes it may be as long as an
hour and a half before tracings show up, but if you stir for longer than
that, you probably missed the signs and the mixture is ready to pour.
7. Using the large plastic container, or the smaller ones, pour the
thickened soap mixture into them, being very careful not to splash. You
should always be wearing your protective gear.
8. Cover with lids and blankets so not to have the mixture cool too
quickly. It must cool evenly and slowly to cure properly.
9. Let sit undisturbed for at least 12 hours, then take a peak through
the clear plastic container. Some soaps, such as those with a high oil
content may develope a thin layer of oil on top of the opaque mixture.
Using your spoon, stir this back into the mixture every 12 hours until it no
longer forms. It may take a few days, but it will finally thicken enough to
keep the oils from separating. Once this has happened, allow the mixture to
cure for 48 hours and check for fingertip (wearing gloves!) hardness--you
will see the impression of your fingerprint, but it will be firm enough to
pop out of the mold to continue curing. If it is too soft, it will stick to
your mold and not release easily, so if it sticks a lot, give it another day.
10. Pop the soap out of the mold and set in dry place on the plastic
canvas cooling rack. Allow it to cure at least 7 days and cut into bars (3
1/2 by 4 1/2 inches or so). These are ready for hand milling or let sit for
another 7 days if you desire them to remain in basic soap form. More on
hand milling later.
Castile or Olive Oil Soap:
52 ounces olive oil
7 ounces lye (you can pick this up at your local grocer near the Drano and
plumbing products--I use the brand called Red Devil. Be sure it says 100%
Pure Lye on the container)
20 ounces cold water (always use cold water since the lye solution will
reach upwards of 200 degrees)
Remember, you will need to stir the soap after pouring into the mold for as
much as three days to completely set the oils into the soap.
Castile soap, or olive oil soap, has been known in ancient Rome. There is
documentation of olive oil based soap used in soaps during the Middle Ages.
It is my firm belief that the above recipe is very much like the ancient
recipes, since it does not include extra additives or ingredients that would
not have been known during that period. I am doing further research to
verify my claims.
Tallow or Grandma's Soap:
106 ounces rendered fat (tallow) or vegetable shortning (this is not
period, but a suitable replacement for those who do not wish to use animal fats)
14 ounces lye (local grocer in plumbing section--100% Pure Lye only!)
41 ounces cold water (remember to always use cold water)
This recipe does not require stirring after being poured into molds. Some
soap makers substitute the tallow or shortning for a 2:1 ratio of vegetable
shortning or tallow and olive oil mixture.
This basic soap is, in fact, so basic that it is hard to believe it would
have changed from ancient times. Therefore, it is my firm belief that this
is very much a recipe used during the Middle Ages. I am doing further
research to verify my claims. The tallow will make a off-white colored
soap, while the shortning will make a white soap.
Making Your Own Lye--
For those of you brave enough to try to make your own lye by leaching water
through wood ash, here's what you do:
Put hard wood ashes in a wooden bucket with holes drilled through the
bottom. Pour water over the ashes and let it drip into a pottery or plastic
container. This can take as long as a week. Try to float an egg in the
solution, so that only about the size of a dime of the egg remains unsunk.
Pour the solution back through the ash until this happens. It may take
several times before you get the lye the right strenght, and only then is it
a hit and miss situation. Too often you may end up with soft soap rather
than hard bars. Patience is the virtue here.
To use the leached lye solution, use this recipe with your fats/oils:
2 quarts water
4 pounds fats or oils as per above recipes
Cook water and fats until all chunks are eaten up or dissolved. Pour in 1
pint cold lye solution and keep on heat until it coagulates, turn off heat.
Stir occasionally unti water and thickened part mix completely. Takes only
a few minutes. Pour into molds as per recipes above.
Remember, this recipe is very crude and will create many problems and errors
even when you do everything right. There are far too many variences in the
leached lye to expect a perfect batch the first few hundred times you try
it. Practice will create more perfect batches as will patience and
endurance. You will definitely get an idea of how the peasants did it. For
nearly perfect batches nearly all the time, use the 100% pure lye you can
purchase at your local grocer. It is stable and of the same composition at
all times, so your margin for error is extremely limited.
Now for the fun stuff, Hand Milled Soap--
Hand milling is not necessarily a period practice. It may have very well
developed in the later Renaissance, but it does seem to be a more modern
invention. However, it is known that herbs, dyes and fragrances were
sometimes added to soap medievally, so it is best to know the more practical
way of doing so. It is my assumption that additives were added just before
pouring the basic soap into the primary mold. Unfortunately, the caustic
nature of the lye would have destroyed much of the ingredients, especially
the herbs and scents. Luckily, once the bars have cured for about a week,
the lye has neutralized enough for the additives to work nicely with the soap.
Soap molds [use your imagination here if you can't find actual soap
molds--microwave containers, aluminum or plastic gelatin molds (the lye is
neutralized enough now to use the metal molds), candy molds, plastic ice
cream cups, candle molds, individual tart pans, etc.]
Additives (herbs, grains, vegetables, dyes, fragrances, etc.--some recipes
are given below)
1. Grate, using a kitchen grater, 12 ounces of the basic soap from the
above recipes and put into sauce pan.
2. Add 9 ounces of water and begin melting on medium heat. Don't stir
continuously or you'll end up with suds.
3. Gently and periodically until all soap has liquified. Some soaps
are very difficult to liquify and may take up to an hour or more to do so.
If it doesn't after that time, you will have to satisfy yourself with
slightly lumpy soap.
4. When it has liquified, remove from heat and stir gently until it
cools to about 150 degrees. Thicker additives such as oatmeal will need to
be added at higher temperatures or you won't be able to pour it into the
5. Mix in your additives just before you're ready to pour into the
molds. Thicker mixtures may have to be ladled in. Tap the mold onto hard
surface to break any air pockets that may have formed.
6. Fill as completely as possible without overflowing and allow to film
over. Put mold into freezer (not necessary, but helps in removing from the
7. Once the soap is frozen solid, pop them out onto plastic canvas
drying rack and leave to cure for at least two weeks. Sometimes longer for
8. Check bars about once a week. If they've warped, turn them over.
Some soaps will not need to be turned.
Hand Milled Additives:
Though these recipes may not be period, they make especially delighful soaps
you enjoy using and giving as gifts. I have chosen my favorites and those
that may be more likely used medievally.
Extra Abrasive Soap--
1/4 cup lemon juice (optional)
1/2 to 3/4 cup clean sand
1/4 to 1/2 cup ground pumice
Substitute the lemon juice for 1/4 cup of the water normally used in hand
milling. Add the sand and pumice and stir until thick. This will sink
unless you stir continuously and until rather thick.
3/4 to 1 cup oatmeal
Several drops of cinnamon fragrance (optional)
Grind oats in blender until flakes are about 1/5 their original size. Add
oatmeal to melted soap and water mixture and stir until it is thick enough
to suspend the oatmeal. May have to be spooned into molds and tapped well
to remove bubbles.
1 to 2 TBS rubbed sage
1 cup fresh chopped or dried powdered chamomile flowers
1 tsp powdered ginger
Pale yellow dye (optional)
Several drops of lemon fragrance (optional)
1 to 2 TBS dried ground rosemary of finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Several drops of herbal fragrance (optional)
3/4 to 1 cup fresh or dried lavender flowers
Several drops of lavender fragrance
Lavendar of purple dye
Grind lavender in blender until fine.
Milk and Honey Soap--
1/4 cup instant powdered milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup honey
Add instant milk to melted soap and only 6 ounces water mixture, breaking up
any lumps with spoon. Add honey and stir well. You may scorch the mixture
slightly to increase golden color. Stir until fairly thick to keep the
honey from settling to the bottom of molds. Be sure the soap is drying
quickly enough to avoid becoming rancid or mold growing.
Buttermilk or Goat's Milk Soap--
9 ounces buttermilk or goat's milk
2 tsp powdered benzoin (fixitive and preservative)
Several drops of peppermint fragrance
Gradually stir in milk to softened soap (no water this time). When soap has
liquified, add the benzoin and fragrance (without this the soap may have a
slightly sour odor).
1/2 to 1 tsp ground cloves
Congradulations! You have now enjoyed making your own soaps! If you have
any questions or run into problems, please feel free to contact me for help.
I'd love to hear about your success stories, too, and some of your own
recipes to add to my collection. Any documentation you may find regarding
medieval soap making is especially appreciated.
1450 N. Dixie Downs #114
St. George, UT 84770
gameroom at infowest.com
"The Complete Soapmaker--Tips, Techniques & Recipes for Luxurious Handmade
Soaps" by Norma Coney; published by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York,
1996 ISBN 0-8069-4869-8
"Children's Britannica" Volume 16; Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1994 ISBN
"The Forgotten Crafts" by John Seymour; Portland House, New York 1984 ISBN
"Hurricane Heritage Cookbook" by Zion Camp Daughters of Utah Pioneers;
Kreyling Brothers, St. George, UT 1993 No longer available.
Pourette Manufacturing Company
1418 NW 53rd
Seattle, WA 98033
Excellent source of candle and soap making supplies and a big help in "The
Complete Soapmaker" by Norma Coney. Great selection of plastic 6-in-1 soap
molds. They also have a good book on soap recipes and a soap making kit for
making glycerin soap.