Soapmaking: Part 2

December 30, 2009

I wanted to make soap from scratch for two reasons.   The first was already generally discussed – I knew about the ethical and health problems associated commercial soaps and I wanted to try to do something about it.  But the second reason had slightly fuzzier objectives.  I believe that true knowledge is gained from struggle.  And so going through the fundamental processes of soap making was my way of struggling with the problem in order to uncover the fundamental ideas it contained.  I always remind myself that “scientists can explain the world through science, mathematicians can explain the world through mathematics, and sheep-herders can explain the world through sheep-herding”.  Also, I think because I grew up on a farm, I tend to enjoy old-fashioned, do-it-yourself projects.

So, by making soap from scratch, I was attempting to do something that is not done anymore by most people (including myself).  I was attempting to do something the hard way.  While doing it, I spent an entire day just thinking about soap.  I think that is a pretty powerful idea in itself.  Technology gives us width and breadth in our knowledge, but it often has a way of discouraging us to go deep into one particular idea.  But if we never go deep, how will we ever continue to discover those fundamental essences that make up our individual foundations?  How will mathematicians explain the world through mathematics if they are sitting on a computer being bombarded by incalculable amounts of stimuli?  How will the scientists explain the world through science if they are out with their credit cards wading through an endless number of possible shoes to buy?  And how will the sheep-herder explain the world through sheep-herding if Monsanto just bought all of his sheep?

Am I arguing that we should all boycott all commercial soap products and go home and make soap from scratch?  Of course not.  I only argue that we should be educated and aware of the environmental, health, and ethical problems present in modern soap making.

I have to finish by saying that if I was doing this 200 years ago, I would have been laughed out of town.  In the end my attempt was only a partial success.  I managed to create soap, but not nearly the amount or quality it should have been if everything went right.  After going through every step many times in my mind after the fact, I still do not know where exactly I went wrong – it could have been the lye, or the temperature, or the recipes I used, or the purity of the fat.  However, after thinking about it more, I began to appreciate my failure.  Even with all of my technology, my books, thermometers, scales, and electric stoves, my ancestors could still make better soap than I can.

But there will be a part 3.  I am planning on buying commercial lye online to try test and see if it was my lye that was the problem.  I also want to buy some coconut and palm oil and try out some “vegetarian” recipes.

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