“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Like a lot of people — Frodo included — I’ve always admired Samwise the most among all of the cast of the Lord of the Rings. This is a guy who is more than a little awkward to the people around him; he’s clumsy, shy, and completely transparent while others plot, negotiate and manipulate. Yet he also has an impenetrable sense of duty and responsibility despite attacks from all directions, and most importantly he never gives up even in the worst circumstances.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. — Winston Churchill
Coming home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India in January, excited and inspired by everything I’d seen, smelled, eaten, and done, I was immediately confronted by a terrible situation caused primarily by an adult who should have known better. It knocked me flat but in the spirit of Samwise and Winston, as well as having no other option, I kept grinding through it with the help of the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband). It took its toll — and continues to do so — but one of the nice things about alchemy is that you get to fool around with various dangerous substances when you’re emotionally out of your skull.
So, of course, that leads us to the soap.
Cold process soap — the soap you make “from scratch,” with oils, butters and our favorite drain-sizzling, death-fog-producing meth-lab pal, sodium hydroxide* — is a product that lends itself to enormous creativity in technique. From single solid colors, to textured tops, to embedded objects and to swirls and layers, you can attempt practically anything with this stuff. That’s not to say the finished soap is going to work out the way you envisioned it. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you some sort of surprise with nearly every batch, even those where you think you’ve got the formula nailed down. The surprise factor multiplies exponentially when you’re trying something new — a new ingredient, fragrance, colorant or technique. Usually, these surprises are bad.
Accordingly, under intense emotional stress, I decided to check every box of the above.
But let’s back up a minute. In Kochi, India, I’d seen a performance of Kathakali dance. It’s extraordinary mythic storytelling, performed silently except for a drum, with dancers who have trained for years to learn a complex vocabulary of gesture and expression. The costuming and makeup are both dazzling and meaningful. I knew as soon as I reeled out of the theater that I had to try to reproduce something about the experience, and it involved the colors I’d just seen. My plans (and posting here) were held up at home as the bad situation developed, but eventually I found myself with enough time and sense to put my hand to something useful. I decided I’d make a soap involving the colors of one of the Kathakali dancers (the guy right up there). And to try to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of the dance, I’d try to use a technique called “tiger stripe.”
Now I’ve tried tiger stripe before. It’s demanding. It requires exquisite timing and a thorough knowledge of your formula and ingredients. But when it’s done right, it can produce a really nifty-looking soap.
Swirling Reef is a pretty straightforward coconut, olive, palm kernel flake, and castor oil soap, colored with ultramarines, micas, and titanium dioxide to get the white. The trick to the technique is emulsifying the soap completely — in other words, incorporating the lye into the oils thoroughly enough to start the saponification process — without letting it “trace” too thickly to pour in stripes, one color atop another, into the mold. You gotta move fast with this, which means you have to emulsify the base batter BUT NOT TOO MUCH, add your fragrance, separate out the amounts for your colors, mix your colors, and then pour like a madwoman. (Preferably to the “Benny Hill” theme music.)
With “Swirling Reef” under my belt, I gathered all the materials together for “Kathakali Dance.” I was trying a new fragrance and new colorants, which should really have been the first hint that this would end in disaster, but I was undaunted.
Well, it was a disaster. The batter traced and thickened almost instantaneously. In a panic I just glopped everything into the mold, eventually using a spoon to dig nearly solid soap out of the mixing container and smash it in. The finished product smells great, lathers beautifully, and looks like something growing on the side of a wet barn. I can barely bring myself to look at it on the curing rack. It is a continuing reproach. It is my Cautionary Tale.
So instead of giving up like any sensible person, I decided to try it again. I tweaked the formula (abandoning the palm kernel flakes, among other adjustments) in the hope that it would stay liquid longer. I changed some of my colorants to micas. I did use the same fragrance — an exotic and intoxicating mix of wood and spices, flowers and rain — because it seemed so perfect for the experience I was trying to recreate. And then I got the mise in order, turned up the music, and threw myself at it.
The green mica morphed blue a bit on me — I’m going to stick with ultramarines for green from now on, I think, and the black didn’t come across as much as I’d like — but otherwise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind. It’s curing on the rack right next to its cousin. To me, both illustrate Sam and Winston’s principle of not giving up.
* I’m using a little hyperbole here, except for the “meth-lab” part.