It unfolded like a scene from a PBS documentary on working-class homemakers driven to diabolical extremes by the current economy. I walked in on Tara unexpectedly as she labored in our kitchen over an unidentifiable substance; her eyes and hands covered by a bulging pair of industrial goggles and latex gloves, a white lab coat the only piece missing to complete the chemist’s ensemble. Aghast, I looked behind me to make sure no patrol cars were passing along our street, then quickly closed the door, trying to formulate a polite way to ask my wife why she had declined to tell me she was giving up coffee in favor of a much stronger home-mixed stimulant. Not to worry, she said, looking up at me through the goggles. It’s soap. Thus I came to learn that for the past few days, Tara had been researching the ancient practice of soapmaking, her education guided primarily by one Anne L. Watson, universally respected and loved author/crafter/curator of this lost art for thousands of aspiring soapers (and one of the few crafting icons out there today who actually invites beginners to contact her with the many questions they invariably have.)
Watson’s groundbreaking Smart Soapmaking isn’t the only book on the market that breaks down this obscure process, but it’s unquestionably the best book with which to begin. To be precise, it’s probably the most accessible, most reader-friendly, and most immediately useful container of information on the subject a first-time soapmaker could hope to find. Turning out a bar of soap is not as simple as it looks. It is, for one, dependent on a chemical reaction (saponification) that comes from mixing vegetable oil or animal fat with a strong alkali, and thus involves the use of some ingredients that are caustic, hazardous, and hide-the-children-while-I-pour-this powerful. Balancing fragrance with other elements also tends to require quite a bit of trial and error. Anne Watson’s wonderful recipes, however, combined with her attention to questions frequently asked by novices, all laid out in straightforward language, make for a feeling that anyone can do this, and that even if one fails at the process, at worst the failure will make for a great story. In other words, it’s not elementary, but thanks to Watson it’s far less mysterious. To visit her home page, to contact her, or to order your own copy of this invaluable book, visit www.annelwatson.com.
The soap pictured is my attempt at making Anne's Shea Butter Supreme recipe (her recommendation for your first batch of soap.)