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10 Surprising Facts About My Soapmaking History & Philosophy

When I teach soapmaking classes and workshops, I always share little tidbits about my soapmaking that surprise students because they don’t tend to follow the norm for soapmakers. I like to share these surprising facts because I think they help soapmakers realize that their path in learning the craft is personal to them, and that other soapmakers’ experiences and advice may differ, even mine or any other soapmaking teacher!

1. My first batch of soap I ever made was Kathy Miller‘s All Vegetable Soap in 2004 (that was also her first batch of soap in 1998!) 

I was introduced to cold process soapmaking by a long-time soapmaker, Judy of Sunrise Soap, who has been around the block since 1996. I believe she directed me to Kathy’s website, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember!

The recipe I used from Kathy is gigantic compared to most first time soapmaker’s first batches (8 pounds of soap!) The reason for this was that Kathy’s recipe was created to use even amounts of readily available ingredients, including the old Red Devil Lye canister and jars of Coconut Oil available at the grocery store. It also used a ridiculous amount of water (26% lye solution strength) and a super low superfat (only 2%!), which ensured it was super slow to trace and easy to handle. On recommendation, I used a small (new!) kitty litter pan as a mold, lined with a trash bag.

The oldest soapy photo I have: a peppermint and alkanet soap I made in 2009
The oldest soapy photo I have: a peppermint and alkanet soap I made in 2009

2. Most of what I know about soapmaking comes from trial and error as well as self-guided research.

Believe it or not, soapmaking didn’t grab me by the horns until I screwed up a batch of soap. It was too easy and smooth-sailing for someone like me who enjoys a good challenge. After I realized that there were plenty of variables and a lot of “rules” that were merely guidelines, I found myself intentionally messing with the process and my formulas just so I could see what would happen.

Testing micas for soap stability and color
Testing micas for soap stability and color

Hundreds of batches of soap were subjected to rule-breaking, process changes, and strange ingredients. And when I couldn’t figure out why something worked or didn’t work, I turned to the local library to find answers in chemistry. I made soaps with single oils, a range of temperature extremes, different kinds of mixing tools and molds, various alternative liquids and additives, and so many more weird things! To this day, there are still plenty of experiments I’d love to dive into!

3. I didn’t start my first soap company until 2010 (six years after I started soapmaking) when my second daughter was born.

Before I opened my soap company, I had already experienced plenty of entrepreneurial fun, including freelance graphic design, web development, and professional printing. In between my different businesses, I worked in various retail positions focusing on inventory management, vendor relationships, and stock control (dotted throughout with crappy jobs like cashiering!)

A look back at Kenna's first company, Amathia Soapworks
A look back at Kenna’s first company, Amathia Soapworks

At the time my second daughter was born, I wanted to move back to heading up my own company so I could stay home with my kids. I was tired of doing graphic design and web development, so I chose the hobby with the most persistence in my life at that point: soapmaking. Having the years of experience in both running a small business and making soap really paid off when I dove into starting my own soap company. I have my background to thank for all of the pools of knowledge I can pull from, even now as a soapmaking teacher and biz coach!

4. I went at soapmaking solo without the internet as resource until 2011.

A lot of newer soapmakers have been blessed with the overwhelming amount of online resources and communities around soapmaking. Back when I started, Kathy Miller’s website was the only resource I knew of, and even then, I didn’t really use it.

In 2011, I stumbled across The Dish Forum and that began my immersion into the online soapmaking community. I had already started Amathia Soapworks, my first company, at the time. There were hidden gems around on the internet that I didn’t find out about until this time, including Yahoo! Groups and mailing lists. In the years that followed, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and blogs became another way to connect with other soapmakers. We are so blessed as a community to have a plethora of online resources for soapmaking these days!

5. All those intricate designs and complex swirls? I don’t love them as much as folks think I do.

A lot of soapmakers who started following me within the last couple of years ago did so because of my extensive messing about with rainbow soaps or putting together design techniques and tutorials. As such, it’s usually quite a surprise for soapy folks to find out that as a general rule, I don’t make soap like that.

One of many rainbow soaps over the years!
One of many rainbow soaps over the years!

I’m actually a no-nonsense kind of soapmaker. I prefer natural colorants, essential oils, simple swirls, and little to no additives. If a batch of soap takes me more than 15 minutes to prep, mix up, and pour, I’m so over it. I’ve never gotten into crazy embeds (landscape soaps, I’m looking at you…) or multiple step processes (cream soap anyone?) That’s all just way to time-consuming for me!

6. I’m really not a vegan. Or even a vegetarian.

Even though most of the recipes and tutorials here on Modern Soapmaking are vegan-friendly, it has nothing to do with my personal lifestyle. When I operated my soap company, there was a hole in the market for vegan-friendly products that were also beautiful, fun, and luxurious, and thus that’s what I formulated for.

Despite the fact that I definitely consume animal products in my diet, using animal products in skincare totally squicks me out because, well, I’m weird like that. (I also don’t drink cow’s milk because I have a little weird mental block about not being a baby cow…) I make exceptions here and there (like lanolin and honeyquat in skincare/cosmetic formulating), but for the most part, I’ve found that some animal products (like goat’s milk or silk in soapmaking) don’t seem to make as much of a difference in formulating for me when compared to plant-derived ingredients.

7. I don’t prefer to use a lot of the holy grail oils that other soapmakers adore.

I often get strange looks when students find out that I don’t tend to use one of the most common soapmaking oils: olive oil. Early on in my soapmaking, I tackled formulating and testing different oils, and found I personally prefer other oils to olive oil when it comes to its fatty acid profile and unsaponifiables in soapmaking. The plus side to this is that I never had to deal with the constant cost fluctuations on olive oil!

Making a slab of one of Amathia's best sellers
Making a slab of one of Amathia’s best sellers: Look, Ma! No olive oil! 😉

I also rarely used palm oil in soapmaking, so I didn’t ever develop a reliance on it. I did, however, use palm kernel oil often but found it to be easily replaced by shifting around other oils and including babassu or butters instead. My biggest challenge in moving forward with palm-free soapmaking wasn’t replacing palm oil itself, but palm-derived cosmetic ingredients in other formulas – such as stearic acid in shaving soap.

8. My ignorance to safety measures early on increased my sensitivity to a huge number of cosmetic ingredients.

When I first started making soap, I was sensitive to fragrances and some FD&C colorants, but it was pretty manageable (except when entering department stores – ugh!)

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not being educated enough on safety during my first several years of soapmaking and rarely wore a respirator. This has resulted in overexposure to a lot of cosmetic ingredients, and developing some intense sensitivities including a full-on allergy to lavender.

This is why I’m such a safety advocate and push full personal protective gear for soapmakers, including gloves, safety glasses/goggles, and a respirator. (Fun fact: I also really try to push soapmakers to stop using glass in soapmaking. I personally used Pyrex until 2011 without knowing any better – seeing one explode from the lye solution micro-etching the glass over time is plenty enough to shock that out of your system!)

9. I’ve hand-stirred countless batches of soap.

When I teach soapmaking 101, I usually have students hand stir their first batch of soap in class. A lot of times, there are cries of “But Kenna! We can use a stickblender… can’t we?!” Of course you can! However, I think it’s extremely valuable for a soapmaker to understand how slowly a batch of soap will actually trace without a stickblender. It gives a really good reference point for later on when you start trying complex designs or accelerating fragrances to remember, “OH, wait! I can hand stir this and it’ll be easy!

My favorite stickblender model at work!
My favorite stickblender model at work

I have personally hand-stirred so many batches of soap that I can’t count them all. In some cases, it was to control trace with an accelerating formula or additive. And other times? Well, stick blenders don’t last forever! I’ve burned out over a dozen stick blenders over the years. Nowadays, I always have at least three stick blenders on hand so I have backup.

Despite burning so many out, I have a soft spot for the Cuisinart ones I like. Why? They’re cheap, the bell and motors are interchangeable, and I like how strong they are – not too strong, but not weak as all get out. To this day, I still have not spent more on Cuisinart stickblenders compared to what it would cost to buy a single Waring heavy duty immersion blender (but it is starting to get close!) For large batches, I’ve always used a power drill with paint mixer attachment.

10. I’m not immune to soapmaker crushes – I have my favorites, too.

While I am much pickier about handmade soap that I was ten years ago, I do buy from other soapmakers and support the industry because there are some seriously talented makers out there. My biggest girl crush on a soapmaker is Hajni from Mianra Soaps. (And she even uses Olive Oil.) I was introduced to Hajni’s soaps five (ish) years ago in a super small international soapmakers swap that Amy of Great Cakes Soapworks pulled me into. When I started Modern Soapmaking, Hajni was happy to share with the community in one of the first interviews I did.

The goodies from one of many soap swaps I've participated in
The goodies from one of many soap swaps I’ve participated in

I don’t tend to participate in soap swaps anymore, but I do highly recommend doing so if you are a new soapmaker. (You can find them on forums, Facebook groups, and more. Brambleberry tends to host soap swaps, too!) Participating in swaps gave me a better understanding of what I do or don’t like in soap, as well as making me a better formulator by seeing how my soaps performed in various conditions, water types, locations, etc. Heck, some of the most popular posts here on Modern Soapmaking are from swaps!

Soapmaking itself is such a unique journey for each soapmaker, so it’s always interesting to see how our experiences vary! Leave a comment below and share a surprising fact or experience you’ve had on your journey!

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29 Responses

  1. Hello, I just wanted to say thank you for all the awsome information you provide. I have learned alot from it. Hello from Murrieta, Ca (next door to Temecula Ca) lol….

  2. Oh sweet Kenna! I am thrilled to be your girl crush. xxxx
    I was grinning to my ears reading this post. Oh where to start!!!!???? So lovely to go down on memory lane re. your first soap. Kathy Miller’s site was also my go to. Seems like 100 years ago connecting to the pretty much only website/resource existing on soap making. And yes… The Whisk, The Dish …..:)))! I must sound like an old rag now lol! Still so many years on I love it all and as you say self guided researching and sometimes just bluffing made it even more fun! It just shows I really thought you were vegan/vegetarian lol and NO didn’t think you love making Rainbow Soap :)!
    You are an inspiration more than you think :)! x

    1. Haha 🙂 I looooove everything you do, and I love watching Mianra expand and grow!

      It’s so funny to think that once upon a time, Kathy’s website was the main resource. I’m so glad that she has kept it hosted all these years.

      Lots of people think I’m vegan or vegetarian! The first time I ordered a hamburger at a lunch with other soapmakers – oh boy, the looks! Haha!

      Thank goodness that someone knows that I don’t love these crazy soaps! They’re fun to make as a challenge, but after one time, I rarely ever do them again. Once is enough!

      You, lady, are an inspiration, too. xo!

    2. I almost forgot about that swap!! My swap partner was Ayuko of The Tokyo Factory aka AYU.Co – what a treat that was!! And yes, Kathy Miller was my source of all things soap when I started out. No wonder my first recipe from her website never traced when I stirred with a spoon! Sheesh!

      Love your list, Kenna! 🙂

  3. Hello Kendra- I come from a life career in the fragrance and flavor industry. I’ve learned that I absolutely love unscented products. The body and nose need a break every now and again.

    1. They certainly do! There’s something very beautiful and carefree about unscented products – no need to worry about how your skin will change a fragrance or what products won’t mingle together, etc. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  4. I enjoyed reading the walk through your soapmaking history. My introduction to soapmaking was through the “Tiny Angel Castile” tutorial and recipe that was online in 2001. It used a container of Red Devil lye and 20 cups of olive oil! Cups!!! I stirred that sucker for 45 minutes and it still separated on me in the mold. Fortunately I succeeded the second time around, or I probably wouldn’t be making soap today!

  5. Loved reading these tidbits about you. I miss yo face, woman!

    I very rarely stick blend. I didn’t start out that way back in 2000, and have gone back to more basic methods. I love looking at the really artsy stuff, but I don’t have the patience for most of it. I’ll bust out one really fancy one per season if I’m feeling like it. But I’ve been having more fun playing with additives and FO/EO blending instead the past couple years. I’ve also learned quite a few ways to make soap LOOK like it took forever, but really didn’t. No small thanks to you in that regard. 😀 <3 You also helped me go palm free. 🙂

  6. So funny. My “journey”, if you want to call it that, since I just started 6 months ago or so. My journey started with “Aleppo soap” . I’ve always had an obsession with various oils, preferring oils to store-bought lotions as moisturizers. I also always loved homemade soaps. I used to travel to Nice, France a lot and saw these amazing logs of pur olive oil soap, 10 lbs. it took me forever to finally buy one, always thought they took too much room in my luggage. There is also a lovely store full of handmade (after making my own, i kinda doubt it’s handmade…) soaps, made with essential oils and scents from the surrounding perfume making villages, and i always what seems like a billion bars….
    So when Aleppo fell last year to “ISIS”, my first thought was “oh, no no more Aleppo soap”( after feeling horrible for all the poor displaced people). So, i researched how to make Aleppo soap. And I did.. I had no idea that you ” needed” a stick blender and stirred my heart out. I also made my first soaps in my unused crockpot, so that was a little faster… So now I love the swirls and all the different oils and butters that can be used… Thank you soo much for your site and all of your work with this site.

  7. I loved reading about your soapy history! Mine started as a weekend boot camp for CP soap with my Mom. I was looking for a hobby to replace roller derby! HAHAHA I was already knee deep in DIY skin care because of my own issues and thought it would be cool to try and make soap…such a novel idea! Little did I know I would be come addicted and happily loose my mind over it!

  8. Hey Kenna, well its only been two yeara and I am about to embark on opening a small shop, but I have made an awful lot of soap in the past 6months for what is a hobby..
    or no..wait…I shall be more positive… prelude to my new soapy life. The most interesting thing I have learnt is that not only does good old fashioned CP coconut soap gets stains out of toddler clothes better than commercial brands…. if I make it at 85 – 90% coconut oil… it doesnt dry out my hands as much as 100% but still works as well.

    1. Just a quick note to add, that I forgot last night…. Soapers Block. I am sat here this morning thinking about making soap and I am drawing a blank! Who knew Soapers Block was a thing?!?!

      Have a fabulously soapy day!

  9. Thank you for sharing your journey. I was surprised to read so many similarities , not my journey but to my soap preferences. I too am not a vegetarian, but can not use animal products on my skin, though I will use honey, goats milk and silk. As much as I admire the works of art that other soap makers create, I perfer a simple bar of soap, with only the scent of the butters and oils . We differ when it comes to olive oil, although when I first started, I hardly used it. People warned me before I made my first batch that soap making was addictive, I of course didn’t think it would happen to me. I was wrong 🙂

  10. Thank you, Kenna! That was a very insightful article. I’m glad you brought to my attention respirators – something I’ve not consisered until now. I can see how prolonged exposure could cause damage to your system. Good ventilation would also be important. Did you have any advice on type of respirator ? And would you recommend putting it on just prior to when you start mixing in fragrance oils?

  11. Wow! Another Kathy Miller soaper here! It was 1997, I was an avid gardener, and Kathy also had an amazing website with pictures from her gorgeous garden. Way down at the very bottom was a link entitled “Visit my soapmaking page” That’s all it took! What a legacy she has given to the world. Thank you for all you do….you at a constant source of inspiration and support 🙂

  12. What a wonderfully interesting story! Thank you so much for your candid writing. Yes, I did assume you were really into colors and fragrances etc…I started this soapy trail because I have allergic reactions to most perfumes. I started with simple things like making my own laundry detergent and some beauty products, and then worked up the nerve to tackle soap. I love it. It is very interesting what you said about using a respirator. I think I am going to invest in one, because I think the smells while the soap is being made are quite strong when you do a lot of it. Thanks!

  13. I have yet to make my first batch, but what I really like about your recipes is that they don’t use olive oil! I’m allergic to it and I was starting to think that olive oil was mandatory. Thank you for sharing so much!
    Living in Hawaii means lye is not locally and I’m just lazy when it comes to ordering stuff. One of these days…..ill make some soap

  14. I am VERY new to soaping but have wanted to take the plunge for over two years. I was afraid of lye because of some childhood memories of my parents saying something to me about staying away from the lye soap at a theme park (more to the story but so funny how I interpreted what they meant or maybe they were clueless!). I made my first batch last Saturday, devising my own recipe after reading and researching online. I plan on making my second batch this weekend and plan on doing the Mantra swirl. I have already ordered and had activated charcoal and red Moroccan clay to make my swirl. I can’t wait! 😉 Anyways, thank you to soapers LIKE YOU who share so much and teach newbies like me and I’m sure oldies too.

  15. Thanks for your awesome website and videos. I am also sensitive to fragrances. I was sensitive before learning to make soap. I have found I get nauseated and dizzy with many natural essential oils and fragrances and I do wear a respirator and have the soap dry in a room where I can’t smell it. I think soap makers to do not realize how dangerous the smells of soap making can be to our physical bodies.

  16. Thanks for the great article. It seems we have a lot in common. I’ve been making soap for about 14 years and began with a small recipe from Susan Miller Cavitch. I am not fond of bright colors or over scented soaps; I prefer a more natural look; more rustic soap. Not fond of piping either. I live in Arizona where dirt seeps through every crack and crevice and can only imagine the nightmare of cleaning those bars up after a show.
    I landed a big contract within the first year, so making complicated soaps with a plethora of ingredients and colors has never been something that I have had the time to pursue. Or wanted to, actually.
    I’m not vegetarian or vegan either, but almost all of my soaps are. The only non vegan ones are the ones I add honey to.
    I am allergic to lavender, but I have always been safety conscious and have been allergic to it most of my life.
    I rarely branched out to other internet resources (mainly because I didn’t know that they existed and had little time to research) aside from the few that I used to order ingredients.
    I have never lost a batch of soap over the hundreds of batches I’ve made. I dropped part of one, but have never had a batch go completely south on me. I’ve never rebatched or wanted to; ugh, stirring and keeping track of it for hours is too time consuming for me. I want to get it done and put away and start on the next one.
    I am amazed at the amount of resources out there today and honestly, I think I would be lost with so much to process.

  17. First off I want to thank you for what you do for the soaping community! I am very curious about what oils you generally use when making soap. With you not using olive oil, I wonder how you formulate , and of course not using Palm oil also. I would be very interested to know how you would formulate a soap that you were making just for you and only you! One other question, my almost 80 year old Mother wants a soap made with Emu oil. I’m not that excited at the thought, but want to do this for her birthday. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you!

  18. Hey!
    I wasn’t the “soap lover” of the family – my husband was so my sister did a few holidays of melt and pour soap for him. She got bored and sent me her leftovers which promptly went on a shelf in a closet. A few years later I was online searching for a handmade lip balm I’d gotten as a gift from the same sister. I couldn’t find the lip balm but I found a ton of places selling lip balm and soap supplies. So of course I found a video of a simple hot process soap, bought my Red Devil lye and Whoomp! I never did get that replacement lip balm.

  19. My first soap ever was Kathy Miller’s Favorite Castile II, but I added cocoa butter and shea butter, recalculating the lye, and added a whopping total of 1 oz of fragrance oil to that GIANT 7+ lb batch of soap. April 2005. I didn’t make soap again for at least a year, but it came out beautifully.

  20. I want to ask about mixing with a paint mixer on a drill. How does one know if the metal is reacting with the lye? Or even what the metal is? And some of the mixer attachments are painted. Do you have one that you prefer? Thank you.

    1. Hey there, Eileen,
      As with all soapmaking tools, you want to be sure not to use reactive metals like aluminum and instead choose safe options like stainless steel. (The reaction is usually pretty clear as the metal will look degraded, but I strongly suggest confirming that your tool is stainless steel before you use it.) Here’s the drill attachment Kenna uses when she does 40 lb batches: http://amzn.to/2zNgrWy.

      Hope that helps

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