Making soap the old-fashioned way fills creative need for area woman

Sunday, October 5, 2003
Tana Huffstutler displays some of her soaps she has made.

MATTHEWS - Tana Huffstutler just bubbles when she talks about soap.

Working in her kitchen, she stirs and pours to create one-of-a-kind soaps that are gathering a following among family, friends and area residents who have come to appreciate the homemade products.

Talking as she measures - everything is done by weight, not volume - she reveals her hobby came about as a product wintertime boredom. The energetic Huffstutler explains in the spring and summer she stays busy with her gardens and in the fall, helps her husband on the farm. Bored one winter afternoon she was flipping through a magazine until she came across an advertisement for a book on soap making and sent away for it.

She said she read and studied and thought: "I can do that." But on her first attempt, Huffstutler suddenly had doubts.

"The first time I tried this I was in a panic," she said with a laugh as she recalled that day. "I had never seen anyone do it, I had just read about. But you know, it came out OK."

And she has been at it ever since.

Most of the ingredients are available from the grocery store (the lye, olive oil, vegetable shortening), an area healthfood store (essential oils) and for the coconut oil, she found a source on the Internet. Her gardens provide the herbs and flowers.

Donning protective glasses and rubber gloves, Huffstutler begins the process with lye. Carefully she adds the powder into her water jug where the chemical reaction warms the liquid to 180 degrees.

Soap is basically oil and lye and water, explains the soapmaker.

While some people cringe as she talks about the lye in the soaps she makes, Huffstutler patiently explains all soaps - those you buy in the store and those which are made by hand - contain lye. "Sodium hydroxide is in all soaps, You can't make soap without lye."

The addition of other ingredients and the curing process reduce the lye's acidity.

While the lye and water mixture cools, Huffstutler turns to a pan on her stove with melting vegetable oil, stirring carefully with her wooden spoon she watches the lumps disappear. Now she adds olive oil and coconut oil.

The pan then goes into the sink next to the lye water where both must cool to 98 degrees. Using a thermometer, Huffstutler moves between the two pans gauging the cooling process until the temperatures are equal. After pouring the two mixtures together the next step is stirring - for at least 10 minutes. With a practiced eye she watches as the mixture begins to congeal.

She offers the soapmaker's term for this step: "sapification." This is the point where her spoon moves across the blends, leaving a line. The final additions are herbs, colorants, oils, pulverized oatmeal or perhaps dried leaves.

"If you are a true soapmaker, this is the part you love - forming the different textures, adding the herbs and the different colors," she said.

This is when she gets creative.

"I'm not one to use a lot of essential oils (the oils which provide the smells). A lot of people don't like soap to smell," she said. "And I like all natural stuff." So she has turned to her gardens, the dried herbs hanging in her kitchen and her flower beds to create unique soaps.

From her front yard she picks a tiny yellow flower - the calendula - and adds the blossoms to a jar filled with olive oil. After two weeks steeping in a jar in the sunshine of her kitchen window it blends. Huffstutler will run the mixture through a sieve to create an oil for her bars of calendula soap.

Her gardeners soap is an array of herbs including sage, rosemary, thyme and yarrow from her garden along with the calendula flower. Another soap popular with her female clientele is a blend of oatmeal and lavender.

She created her own version of a baby soap, she calls a super fattening bar. The extra oils make it mild and a favorite of her grandchildren, who look forward to receiving "their" soap.

For men, she developed a farmer's soap with the cleansing herb, lemon grass, along with cedar wood essential oil for a manly smell and cornmeal which acts as an abrasive.

"I'm just getting into the medicinal herbs," she said as she explained about the bars of comfrey soap. These contain the dried root of the comfrey plant, praised by naturalists for its healing powers.

The final step is to place the soap mixture in a greased mold, lined with waxed paper.

"The more you do it, the more tricks you learn," she said. That includes wrapping the warm soap mold in layers of wool blankets where it will cool slowly for the next 24 hours or if the soap won't slide out of the mold, she puts it briefly in the freezer to loosen it.

Once unwrapped from its blankets the soap will cure for two weeks on a wire rack, giving the water time to evaporate from the bars and reduce the alkalinity of the lye ("Another trick of the trade is putting the bar of soap to her tongue- if it doesn't taste acidity it's OK," she offered.)

Finally, Huffstutler cuts the soap into individual bars and places them in baskets where they continue to dry. "The longer it sits, the better the soap you get," she said.

For the past three years, Huffstutler's soap have been a favorite gift for her family. This year she sold her soap along with her homegrown loofahs, first at the Sikeston Farmer's Market then expanding to include the Big Oak Tree State Park's craft festival.

She is still experimenting and planning new soaps. A friend who raises goats has promised her some of their milk so she can make a goat's milk soap and she has read about a soap created using coffee which is suppose to be good for removing odors such as onion or gasoline from the skin.

"There is still a lot to learn," she added. "But that is the beauty of it."

To contact Huffstutler about her soap call 472-4056.

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