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Soapmakng-CMA-art - 9/15/00


“Soapmaking in the Current Middle Ages” by Gillian Fhlaitheamhail (Fraya Davis)


NOTE: See also the files: soap-msg, Lye-Soap-art, soapmaking-msg, handcream-msg, Handcream-art, candles-msg.





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


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    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

the grease.


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.




Kitchen scale

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

Rubber gloves

Wooden or stainless steel ladle

Sharp knife

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

mix properly.

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.  




Kitchen grater


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

larger molds.

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.


Oatmeal Soap--


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.


Sage Soap--


1 to 2 TBS rubbed sage


Chamomile Soap--


1 cup fresh chopped or dried powdered chamomile flowers

1 tsp powdered ginger

Pale yellow dye (optional)

Several drops of lemon fragrance (optional)


Rosemary Soap--


1 to 2 TBS dried ground rosemary of finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Several drops of herbal fragrance (optional)


Lavender Soap--


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).


Clove Soap--


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.


Gillian Fhlaitheamhail

(Fraya Davis)

1450 N. Dixie Downs #114

St. George, UT 84770

(801) 674-1833

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

(800) 888-9425

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.



<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org