National Soapmaking Day

Last Sunday in September

Kerri Mixon, Featured Soapmaker for 2020

Image of Kerri Mixon, the Featured Soapmaker for National Soapmaking Day 2020.

Kerri Mixon owns Pallas Athene Soap in Lemon Grove, California

What are your first memories of making soap?
In the early '70s, my kindergarten class (at Mr. Birdwell’s Early Learning Center) rebatched used soap scraps when I was merely 6 years old! We started with misshapen soap bars, whose enticing aroma permeated their cardboard box. I remember carefully grasping small pieces of broken soap and running them along a cheese grater, while wondering, "How can we possibly use such tiny shavings of soap?" I was captivated when we put the dusty, crumbly, dry soap shavings in a dented, rustic metal pot and added liquid, as if preparing a meal. In my mind, I believe the liquid was milk, but this memory is nearly 50 years old and subject to degradation because water added to grated soap will appear white—like milk—within minutes, so the liquid could have been water. The multicolored hodgepodge of soap grates and milky liquid resembled a pot of pink oatmeal, but with bits of blue and green not found in the usual bowl of oatmeal. As a small child, I was not yet allowed to help my mother prepare hot meals and felt a special sense of accomplishment when spooning the hot, melted, gooey soap into individual ice cube tray compartments. Our creations remained sequestered on a shelf for a week, until they were unmolded and circulated among the eager recipients. Even though my pink and white soap cube resembled a small block of pepperoni, I took it home, tested it, dried it, and cherished it as a keepsake for decades.

What inspired you to begin soapmaking?
Harry, my father, was raised on a dairy farm in Georgia in the '30s. Because my grandparents had barns and stables for the dairy cows, they also kept hogs for the family's own use. Having an abundant source of animal fats, my grandmother was the town chandler; she made soap for her own family, to trade with neighbors, and to sell. Of the five children, it was my father's job to help with the soapmaking. Pre-modern-convenience farm life was hard. As soon as he became of age, my dad left and joined the navy, repeatedly testifying the navy was like a vacation with short, eight-hour work days. Eventually, he became a registered professional engineer. For decades, he owned and managed a successful manufacturing and fabrication business with several employees, mostly machinists. When he retired, he stayed home and my mother continued working. To help her, he would wash the dishes. After several months of complaining of dry skin, the skin on his hands began to peel. I knew the dishwashing liquid contained the harsh, first-generation detergent sodium lauryl sulfate, known for being tough on grease…and on skin. I wanted to help my father and allow the skin on his hands to heal. I wanted to make a cleanser that would be effective at cutting grease, but that would not remove all the natural oils from skin. Having a 15th-generation soapmaker switch from commercial liquid detergent to my handmade soap was the ultimate compliment. Within weeks, the skin on his hands was fully healed and normal. Daddy Harry's Soap for Dirty Old Men is one of the varieties of soap I now sell, and it is based on the original colorant-free formula with allantoin I originally created for my dad.

How did you learn to make soap?
I set out to learn to make soap in the mid-to-late-1990s, pre-Google search engine. I tried asking Jeeves, but he didn't know anything about making soap and Yahoo! search returned ho-hum nothing. In the library, I came across Ann Bramson's small paperback, "Soap: Making It, Enjoying It" from 1975. Today, I recognize Ann's book as a valuable instructional tool, but at the time it seemed plain and dull—all words and no pictures. My local Barnes & Noble bookstore had one copy of a brand new book, "The Soapmaker's Companion," by Susan Miller Cavitch, released in 1997. I was never without Susan's book from the moment I bought it! Reading and studying her book gave me confidence. I felt as if Susan's fondness for soapmaking absorbed through to my soul. Her words were inspirational and motivating; her love of soapmaking was contagious. This is the book that changed my life forever. After reading her book at least three times word-for-word cover-to-cover, I finally made a lovely sage soap of my very own. I was addicted and the rest is history.

How do you feel when you make soap?
When I make soap, I feel empowered and magical, as if I can conjure something from nothing.

What does soapmaking mean to you?
Soapmaking means being able to support myself doing something I love.

If you could describe soapmaking in one word, what would it be?

Can you compare soapmaking to anything else to help people relate to the experience?
For me, soapmaking is a ritual, yet each experience is different, similar to attending the symphony. First, like an orchestra tuning in preparation for a monumental creation, tools and equipment must be brought out, cleaned, and at the ready. Then, as the orderly sonata, I begin meticulously weighing out oils and fats. Depending on the soap artistry and the ingredients, the speed at which the soap thickens varies, so sometimes my soap symphony slowly peaks to a climaxing crescendo and sometimes it quickly progresses to a frantic, rollicking finale. At that moment, it is poured in the mold and tucked into bed. Removing the soap from the mold to cut the soap is like remembering the emotional experience of attending the symphony the previous evening.

What are your fondest memories of soapmaking?
Oh, the perfect batch on the perfect day…. I usually make soap under tight time constraints, either teaching a class or making soap for clients. My fondest memories of soapmaking are the batches and times I've created soap in a relaxed setting, at my own pace, usually soap to give to family and friends as gifts. The batches where I had the whole day to take my time and I got to be creative with the soap artistry, instead of making what a client envisioned, those memories are the fondest.

Is there a particular soapmaking experience you'd like to share from your past soapmaking history?
A fair trade certification company contacted me to make soap containing fair trade chocolate. The certification commissioner cleverly decided to include a sample bar of fair trade chocolate soap with the official welcome package mailed out to businesses. Coffee, tea, and chocolate were the items most commonly certified as fair trade by the company. Some people don't drink caffeine, so the commissioner was adamant about not sending out coffee or tea samples. Chocolate candy may have melted in the mail or the recipient might have refrained from consuming sugar. A soap sample made of fair trade chocolate was brilliant and I accepted the fair trade certification company as my client. When preparing the soap order, I erroneously misplaced the decimal point in my sodium hydroxide calculations and—without comparing the relative quantity—added 2.10 ounces of sodium hydroxide to a pot of melted oils, instead of the correct weight of 21.0 ounces of sodium hydroxide. The result was barely soap and more closely resembled real chocolate! With the commissioner's consent, I cut the non-lathering chocolate soap into smaller chunks and embedded them in another batch of uncolored soap, so the resulting bars were blonde with chunks of brown and were far more artistic than a plain chocolate soap. The fair trade certification commissioner was quite pleased and the final bars lathered nicely.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Yes, Ferris Bueller was right: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." If you've never experienced the thrill of making soap, National Soapmaking Day is your chance to stop and make soap.

Image of Kerri Mixon's soap on the shelves of her soap shop in Lemon Grove, California.

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