When I was a kid, I always tried to do things from first principles.
For the longest time, I tried to start a fire native style, by hollowing our a piece of wood, and rubbing a stick on it with a little bow. It has never worked, but alas I never learned. I keep trying to do things from first principles.
With fibre, my attempts were finally successful. With soap, I still have one more step to traverse to genuine pioneer style soap. Well, two.
Let’s start with the soap. Everybody has to wash, right?
First, let me tell you how it used to be made in pilgrim days, then you’ll see that you probably would want me to skip steps one and two for your own peace of mind.
Actually, let’s go back all the way to antiquity for a moment, and see how the soap came to be in the first place. The ladies doing laundry in the river downstream from the temples noticed that the stains came off a lot easier then in any other water. Reason being that in the process of animal sacrifice, the melted fat mixed with the ashes and naturally formed soap. Now back to the pilgrims, who replicated the process in a controlled environment of an early settlement.
Step one: when the animals were slaughtered in the fall, the fat around their innards (tallow) was harvested for soap and for tallow candles. It came with other bits of animal innards, so it had to be rendered, that is the fat melted, strained and cooled, and the other bits and pieces thrown away. I haven’t tried, but apparently it’s a pretty stinky business. Then, the cooled tallow was stored for the winter somewhere safe.
Step two: as the family heated the house with firewood, the ashes were dutifully collected over the course of the winter. Applewood ashes made the best soap. Ashes contain a strong base, potassium hydroxide, that would react with animal fat to make liquid soap, and that’s what we are after here.
The ashes were put in a barrel lined with burlap, and were watered until lye water came out from a hole in the bottom. It was the right concentration when an egg or a potato floated in it submerged about halfway. Then all you had to do is to take a big cauldron liberated from its duties as a maple syrup evaporator, dump the tallow and lye water in it, and cook it until it no longer bit your tongue when you tested it.
You would end up with a barrelful of smelly brown goop that was serviceable to wash the floors, the laundry and the people, and that you would bring home by the crockful. One day I’ll try it, just for laughs. But we’ve come a long way, baby.
Step three: this is where we take over. Instead of tallow, we take olive, palm and coconut oils as our starting point. We add castor, grape, almond, kukui nut and jojoba oils if we are in a spa mood. We mix it with lab grade sodium hydroxide for solid soap, or potassium hydroxide for liquid soap. By the time we are done, the hydroxide part has reacted with the fatty acid hydrogen, has turned into water and is no longer there.
To make absolutely sure all of it is completely gone, we use a hefty excess of oils that would hydrate your skin as you wash. We add real essential oils (never perfumes, imitation ethers or artificial colours), clays, minerals and botanicals. We either let it mature for a few weeks on its own to make a smoother cold processed soap, or we cook it in a crock pot to make an instantly available hot proceed soap. You will have to experiment with both and see which you like better.
Now let’s dig into the fibre part. We’ll unravels it backwards from the finished product, that way those of you who are not interested in fidgeting with little bits of string and fluff can safely get off the bus. As a finished product we offer handwoven scarves, pillows, hangings and carpets, and handknitted hats, mitts, scarves and shawls.
Some of them are optimized for production and make cheerful additions to your everyday wardrobe. Others are works of art that don’t have a set price. Make us an offer, but be prepared to treat them as works of art with its associated cost. Bus stop. The rest is going off the deep end for fiber people.
Do you know the French folk song “La laine de mouton”? Well, that’s what we do here on the farm. We shear the sheep with hand shears (or comb the goats out, or groom the bunny), we wash the wool in bathtub in lingerie bags, we card it on a drum carder or with hand cards, we spin in with a spindle or on a spinning wheel, then we knit it or weave it on an honest to goodness loom.
And, of course, we sing – “c’est nous qui la chantons” – you can’t work with fiber and not sing, your hands and your mind have to work in unison. Everybody helps, even 4 year old Johnny has his spindle.
I’ve once read that working with acrylic yarn is like eating cold boiled zucchini for breakfast. Once you start with the real thing, you can never go back.
To all you knitters out there, have you ever spent hours in the yarn shop trying to find exactly what you are looking for? The fiber composition looks good, but the yarn is the wrong thickness. Or the colours are lame? Or they don’t go together for the life of them? Have you ever tried to find something for tone on tone colour combination – ha! Never going to happen.
Well here we are in complete control of the procedure, start to finish. First, we pick the fiber. We have a choice of cashmere, angora, our neighbours’ alpaca, Border Leicester or Icelandic sheep wool, and eri silk. I like them pure, but we can blend them also.
We card them into batts for woolen spinning if we want fuzzy and fluffy, or comb them into roving if we want a worsted look for tight and defined. The thickness of the yarn goes from laceweight to chunky novelty yarns to boucle. We have the choice of single ply lopi to textured two ply to rounded 3-ply. We control the torque, going from a relaxed to a bouncy yarn. We get to blend natural colours.
And then we die it. After research into different kinds of dies available, we realized that natural plant dies are not that natural. To get the plant extracts to bite into the wool and give you anything other than washed-out colour, you need to use heavy metal mordants that aren’t the best thing for either the environment or the kids. And the colours fade.
So we’ve settled on Greener Shades Dies. These are completely non-toxic acid dies (don’t jump when you read acid – they mean vinegar). They are safe for use by anybody. I wouldn’t use the same pots for cooking, but in theory you could, they are that safe. The colours they give you are tremendously vibrant, and the only thing you are limited by in colour choice is the spectrum of the visible light. I can live with this. Can you?