First we need to address the basics: why would anyone make soap? At one time soap was made merely as a necessity--a no-frills item that served a basic purpose. It was commonly just a plain white unscented bar used for scrubbing clothing and bodies alike. Handcrafted soap has come a long way from those days. For some it is a relaxing and enjoyable hobby; for others it is a means of creating a gentler skincare product than is commercially available. I personally was hooked on making soap from my very first batch. There's something magical for me in seeing a caustic substance and fats transform into a wonderful product through the process known as saponification. People often say "I would never use anything made with lye on my skin". If that is true they have never used soap. The end product of soap cannot be achieved without the use of an alkali (lye) as an ingredient. Handcrafted soap, properly made and cured, is a luxurious treat for your skin.
Knowledge Is Power
Before embarking on your own soap making adventure, I strongly recommend spending some time researching the process and familiarizing yourself with the safety precautions involved. If you are reading this article online you have an amazing number of resources available at your fingertips to learn about soap making. There are also many good reference books available through local libraries or booksellers. If you make a single batch or several hundred batches of soap, take a moment every single time and review the entire process before you begin. This advice has served me well over the years, whether to remind me of an ingredient I forgot to get out or to suddenly realize I don't have my molds prepared to pour the soap!
Using Herbs and Plant Materials
Once you get the hang of the soap making process, the possibilities for bringing your garden into your soap are endless. While plain soap is beautiful in its own right, I tend to get bored with it quickly. Herbs and other plant materials can be used to provide texture and visual appeal. A key consideration here is to always keep in mind that the soap will likely be used on someone's body, so you don't want it to be rough and scratchy. It's generally a good idea to crush or grind leafy materials such as mints. An inexpensive coffee or herb grinder works very well for this. Poppy seeds are fantastic for adding texture to a scrub bar, but rosemary can be VERY unfriendly to the end user (or the user's end!) unless it is finely ground before adding it to soap. Be certain that your herbs and plant materials are thoroughly dried before using them in soap making. Lavender flowers can be used whole (off the stem of course) or ground for a more speckled appearance. Calendula petals are beautiful and maintain much of their color in handcrafted soap. Rose petals, unfortunately, do not. Many soap makers have learned this bit of wisdom the hard way. How well I recall adding a generous amount of deep pink dried rose petals to a batch of soap and thinking "This is going to be stunning!" It was stunning alright--sometimes experience is clearly the best teacher. The lesson for that day was that rose petals turn absolutely black during the saponification process and end up looking like little bugs in soap. Herbs and plant materials impart very little, if any, fragrance to your soap. Fragrance is achieved by adding essential or fragrance oils, which will be discussed in a separate Soap Making From the Garden article. When adding herbs and plant materials to soap, there is no set formulation for the amount to use--it is solely up to the soap maker's preference. Just keep in mind that it is easy enough to add more, but impossible to remove once blended into your soap. When grinding or powdering herbs for soap I like to prepare more than I think I'm going to use in the batch to avoid having to grind more at a critical point in the soap making process. Any extra can be saved for another batch. Start by adding a small amount (even a few tablespoons--you'll be surprised at how far it will go), blend it in--does is have the texture and visual appeal you envisioned? If not, add a little more. Let your creativity be your guide in taking two hobbies to a whole new level by combining soap making and gardening!
Photo credit: Many thanks to Karri_Sue for the lavender, mint & calendula photo.