It’s embarrassing to think how long making bath soap has been on the Club de Artesana’s (CdA) “To-Do” list. It would seem many health issues wouldn’t arise if basic hygiene standards were higher. What must be taken into account are the challenges such as the distance to the nearest water source and the fact that bath soap is an imported luxury beyond the means of rural budgets. Large bars of laundry soap are the only Bolivian made soap available locally.
The PAZA library has boasted a copy of Norma Coney’s, “The Complete Soapmaker” for at least 3 years. You have read vague mention of an upcoming soap workshop for longer. The lye was purchased over a year ago. It was a personal 2014 New Year’s Resolution to start production. The basic soap recipe selected contains just 3 ingredients which are rendered tallow, lye, and water. The problem was I was terrified of working with the lye, and didn’t think I could communicate the need for caution to Doña Máxima and the other women. Year’s end loomed ever closer so finally a Tuesday was scheduled to render tallow, the first step in the soap making process.
There are numerous butchers in town, so tallow is easy to come by. Rendering tallow is a messy stinky job and that´s being able to work outside. Our first purchase of 2.5 kilos contained a lot of chunks of impurities so we had to repeat the process in the afternoon to have enough for the soap recipe. Our first lesson learned was that the 2nd batch of tallow wasn’t as malodorous as the first, so attention to the tallow odor is needed when purchasing. Grease was everywhere and the water was shut off all day. Water is usually rationed during the dry season, but it had been flowing regularly since October, so we were caught unprepared. We made do with the 2 buckets of water always stored in the kitchen.
By Thursday´s soap making workshop I´d read the instructions at least 5 times and had translated the recipe and a preparation list to Spanish. The plan was to have the women observe from a table set back from the work area and the 4 tykes in a play area behind them. It began to hail, so they fled inside. The work space has a roof so while Doña Máxima measured and melted the tallow I mixed the lye and water. It was anti-climactic, I could feel the increasing temperature of the lye and water through the rubber gloves, but there wasn’t a dramatic visible chemical reaction. Upon completion of the recipe we wrapped the container of warm soap in 2 towels and left the bundle on a sheep´s fleece to cool slowly for 3 days. When we unveiled it we were relieved to observe no lye bubbles or separations and could continue to the fun part which is to make fine soaps with fragrance and additives.
The next Club Tuesday while the soap continued drying, CdA had its first dye day since last April. The women were in need of orange, pink, and lavender skeins for their weavings. Five of them trooped off in the morning to harvest limbs of the Sumaqhaya tree for the dye in the cambria. It is a natural dye we use only once a year. The other dye pot contained 200 grams of cochineal. The Sumaqhaya provided 6 dye baths, and the 5th dye bath of the cochineal was to overdye the last batch of skeins from the Sumaqhaya pot.
Two days later the CdA activities were to finish up the last 2 dye baths and refine the soap. Instead of making a small batch to learn the new process, I suggested we triple it. Big mistake. The grated soap would not melt. After 1.5 hours of stirring and adding water we gave up. The dried lavender was stirred in and the powered leaves looked like dirt. The glop was spooned into the molds and we hoped they would turn out in the end. No such luck, the bars slowly darkened to an unappealing shade of brown, didn’t smell like a cleansing agent for bodies or clothes, and they wouldn’t harden. We’ve learned through the years with the dye pots that failures can be turned around to successes through the lessons learned. We’ll review the list of improvements to be made and count on experience not luck next time.
George Dutcher has advocated for the soap making workshops for years. His 2014 soap making fund did away with my lame excuses about not having all the equipment and supplies. Thanks dad. Dorinda Dutcher, November 27, 2014