Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Laundry soap experiment

This is how our great-great-grandmothers made soap for laundry....with lard or tallow, lye, and water.  I'm on a mission to find out how my own Memere made soap....and how she did other things that she needed to do to keep a family of 13 people fed and clothed and clean.
I just got the phone number for my eldest aunt on my father's side and hope to have a series of conversations about how their mother, my Memere, made soap and other kitchen and gardening tasks.  Meanwhile, the internet is a great resource.

I've been making goat's milk soap for some time now, using only food-grade ingredients (except my pine tar soap, of course!)  This soap does not dry the skin like most commercial soaps do.  It also is does not contain any petroleum products.  It is, however, super-fatted so is not the best for laundry.

When oils are mixed with a lye/water solution (or lye/goat's milk), a chemical reaction takes place.  The lye reacts with the oils and saponification occurs.   This simply means that the lye turns the oils into soap.  Lye used to be sold as drain cleaner, and is very caustic.  So the proportion of fats to lye is critical.  You don't want the soap to be caustic and drying by using too much lye.  However, if too little is used, a lot of the oils will remain and you will have a greasy bar of soap that is vulnerable to rancidity.

A super-fatted soap, one perfect for bathing babies (and adults) and washing your face with, contains just a bit of unsaponified oils.  The fat in goat's milk is unique and if used in correct proportions, will produce the most lovely, mild soap.

Clothes don't benefit from moisturizing soaps, though, so this batch of soap is a teensy bit heavy on the lye.  It will be too harsh to wash hands or bodies with, but perfect for use in the washing machine.  Maybe even the dishwasher.  I'll let you know in three weeks.  That is how long it takes, on average, for the saponification of all the oils to be complete.  Then I will grate some up and make a batch of laundry soap.

I've been making my own inexpensive laundry detergent using Fels Naptha, borax, and washing soda for some time now, at considerable savings to my wallet but also to the environment.  All those items are sold in paper or cardboard packaging, and I supply my own plastic containers, used over and over again, to make up the batches of liquid laundry detergent.  Not paying for all the water, fancy packaging, toxic perfumes brings my cost for each load to 1.4 cents.  Yup.  1.4 cents.  Homemade soap will bring that down to under a penny a load.  But that is not why I did it.....like many people, I get great satisfaction by doing things myself and trying new things.

Got any projects going?  Finished?  In the planning stages?

UPDATE:  I've been using this for some time now and it is the BEST laundry soap ever!  It makes the laundry smell like a spring day, even though it is unscented.  Hung outside on a clothesline, this wonderful smell is really strong.  But even hung inside near the woodstove in winter, the laundry smell like it was hung outside.  I hope to market this soap soon, maybe by the end of February 2014, so watch for the announcement on this blog if you are interested....sign up for notifications via email of new blog posts!


  1. Recipe for inexpensive laundry detergent please? Re: Approximate amounts of Fels Naptha (and what is it), borax and washing soda (what type?).

    Thanks, Cathy

  2. Cathy, I need to make some in the next few days, so I'll blog the entire process for you. I'll be using the purchased fels naptha soap (bar laundry soap) until my home made batch is cured. Meanwhile, I use about a third of a bar of the soap with a half cup each of the borax and washing soda to make two gallons of liquid, and use a half cup of that per load. The washing soda is found with the laundry soap at the regular grocery store, and I find Arm & Hammer brand in a yellow box. It will say washing soda on it in big letters. Not all stores carry it, but a lot do now that people are looking for it.

    Oops, this is becoming a blog! I'll do a thorough one, I promise, with pictures!

  3. Just wanted to say that I love your blog, found it through my friend Sheryl Bradbury. So envious of your urban farming lifestyle, not likely to be able to duplicate it to any great extent here in South Florida, but do enjoy experiencing it vicariously through you. Cheers!
    Lisa I.

  4. Thanks, Lisa! Glad you found us...yes, your weather is quite a bit different than here in New England. I envy you today!