Monthly Archives: June 2014

Wait, what season it it again?

Half a dozen years ago, I was, like most people I know, always ready with the “wait, they put the Christmas trees out HOW early?!” irritation. It seemed like mid-November was plenty early enough, and the scope creep sending Christmas back into October, fercryinoutloud, was Just Too Much.

So then I started Foam on the Range, and after the first year I realized that if I waited until October to think about Christmas, there was no way I’d have things ready to sell during actual Christmas. So OK, fine, now I have to think about Christmas a bit earlier, I can live with that. But each year I have realized I didn’t start early enough – I would find myself floundering about in an ungainly rush trying to get seasonal products finished after people already started asking for them, and generally rushing about like decapitated poultry for the whole last 10 weeks of the year. So every year I move my “start thinking about this” time earlier and earlier until this year I am starting, well, now.

Yes, you read that right. I have made Lists of candidate soaps and scents for the fall and winter months, and in the next weeks I will be embarking upon tests of these scents, and then I’ll crank into production with them, and maybe this year I’ll actually get the jump on the holidays and be ready in time. And even worst-case scenario, at least I’ll have LESS to finish up in my end-of-year headless-chicken-dance.

But I can tell you one thing: It is downright surreal to smell pine and pumpkin in June. We as humans are very olfactorily-oriented, and these scents trigger memories and expectations and emotions. And since in my basement soap cave there is no season (it’s always cool and darkish down there), I get wrapped up in the fall-and-winter scent cloud and then come up and go outside and am actually startled to be smacked in the face with the bright, hot, [either too humid or too dry] reality of summer on the prairie.

I may be an advocate of “live in the now” whenever possible, it’s just that some days I’m not quite sure when that is.

But don’t worry. I won’t be trying to SELL Christmas stuff until at least October. I promise.


Why Use Silk in Soap?

Silk is far from a universal ingredient in artisan soaps, but it is increasingly common. And there are several reasons for that – but they all add up to it making the soap smoother, shinier, and, well, silkier – and but mostly stabilizing the lather, or foam. OK, how does it do that?

The answer? Protein. Proteins are the basic building blocks of all manner of things, and silk is almost entirely composed of protein and smaller amino acids. Dissolving silk into the lye solution at the beginning of the soapmaking process breaks the long proteins into smaller pieces which end up evenly distributed throughout the final soap. Even these smaller pieces, though, are still huge honkin’ molecules with lots of different parts, which is how they manage to do what they do.

And what is it they do? Well, anyone who has ever made a meringue has seen the efficacy of a protein-stabilized foam – and indeed pretty much all culinary foams benefit from the stabilizing effects of proteins in one way or another, from whipped cream to cappuccino to chocolate mousse. But before we can get into why this is the case, we should take a look at what a foam actually is.

In its simplest form, a foam is a whole bunch of little teeny bubbles separated by thin films of liquid. Seems pretty obvious, right? Sure. But liquid being what it is, and gravity being what it is, the liquid is going to want to run downward and eventually collect at the bottom of the pile, leaving nothing in between the bubbles but air. And since air was what was inside them in the first place, this pretty much means they aren’t bubbles anymore, they’re just – well, air. This will essentially always happen eventually, but there are some things we can do to make it happen more slowly.

What allows a foam to form in the first place is usually a surfactant, lowering the surface tension of water and creating conditions favorable to the formation of a film. But wait, I hear you say, isn’t soap itself a surfactant? Why do we need the protein? Well, if all we want to do is make the foam in the first place, we don’t. Soap will lather perfectly well on its own – just add water and suds up. But with the exception of some carefully-formulated shaving soaps and bubble baths, it doesn’t usually stick around very long, because soap is an insufficiently complicated molecule.

Proteins, however, as stated above, are huge honkin’ molecules, and have the potential to interact with themselves and each other in interesting and fairly complicated ways. Once a protein is denatured – for example, by dumping it into a crazy high pH lye solution – all of the parts of its structure that once held it together in the specific shape that let its do its job – the forces that make silk so incredibly strong, in this case – are flailing around without anything to do, like the hook half of a Velcro strip bereft of loops. But wait! That piece over there has loops! It’s not a perfect fit, maybe it only fills 5% of the hooks, but hey, it’s better than nothing. So they end up very weakly bonded, one to another, all through the solution. This trait of proteins is what gives soup stock its “body” and “mouthfeel”, and it’s what helps these bubbles stay put longer.

So that’s why I put silk in my soap. Is that the only source out there for soapy proteins? Absolutely not! Other common protein sources in soap include milk (often goats’ milk) and oatmeal, and I also get a protein boost from the beer I add to my Hops in the Shower line. Some people use other fibers, such as angora wool. Now, not all proteins are created equal, so each of these protein sources will have a subtly different set of effects on the soap. But in nearly all cases, the foam stabilization effects will be in play in the lather they generate.


UG MAKE SOAP. UG NOT TALK MUCH.

For those of you who aren’t already aware, I work out of the basement of my home, full-time and then some. My “co-workers” are my husband – who also works from home, though mostly on different projects, in a different part of the house where I rarely run into him during the day – and two dogs. Now, I love what I do and I love my working conditions, but there are a few side effects. By far the most significant one: My social skills have atrophied considerably in the last few years.

Not all of them, mind – interacting with customers in the specific milieu of a craft fair or market is a skill I didn’t have before, and I do like to think I’ve got a decent handle on that now, for the most part. But the normal-person, day-to-day things? Casual conversations with friends about what happened yesterday, or what I’m planning to do next week, or so forth? Yeah, I am no good at those anymore. I appear to have lost the skills for any conversational mode between “yes thank you I would like fries with that” and “stream of consciousness babble with no thought to situational appropriateness”.

…well, OK, it’s not quite that bad. It’s not this bad either (um, maybe panel 2, come to think of it), but it’s there. One gradually forgets things like how to recognize which color combinations of clothing are socially acceptable for public wear, whether or not one has combed one’s hair on a given day, and even what time or what day it actually is.

I am an introvert by nature, and while I do quite like the company of many people, the near-solitude of my work life does not bother me in its own right. But sometimes, when I’m at a family gathering or in a group of friends and I hear myself rambling on about things about which no one can possibly care (bear in mind here that one generally talks about what one thinks about, and mostly I’m thinking about tomorrow’s to-do list, and business plans for next month and next quarter, and technique tweakings for soaps I want to design for next season, and other things ill-suited to social conversation), and I see eyes glazing over, and I think maybe I should get out just a bit more, to remind me how this whole “coexisting with other humans” thing works.

Or else I should just go back to my cave and stop trying to socialize in person at all. Maybe that’s what social media really is for: Providing a social outlet for the situationally socially inept.

Oh, wait. That’s the entire internet, isn’t it.

In any case, this being my blog and therefore a place in which it actually is socially acceptable for me to ramble about whatever happens to be on my mind, I’m going to try to do some of that here – and maybe I’ll get it out of my system enough that if you happen across me at a coffeeshop someday, I’ll be able to talk about my dogs and ask about your kids like a normal person, instead of talking about the esoterics of soap chemistry or the delicate balance of show scheduling. Hey, we can hope, right?