look at the lustrous coat on this beautiful greyaface dartmoor ewe. one of the pleasures of being a knitter in our time is having access to a wider range of fiber quality than ever before. once you’ve knit with a unique yarn that’s fulfilling to hold in your hands and make stitches with, you know the feeling of wanting to take extra special care of it over the life of your garment or accessory.
fresh, clean handknit fabric should feel airy, fluffy, and have a fibery halo that sparkles as it catches the light. if your wool soap leave the fabric dull and heavy looking, you might be interested in making your own. DIY wool soap is easy to make, difficult to screw up, and has the added bonus of costing far less than commercial preparations. it also allows you control what goes into the mix, great for those with allergies or a preference for vegan products.
i made my first batch of wool soap and blogged about it eighteen months ago, when i found myself low on soap and strapped for time to order the large quantity i needed. i used the recipe that i saw most frequently around the internet, one that has withstood the test of time and is still a classic. it appears on many websites and you can make it in full dilution or as a concentrate; the recipe is easily divided or multiplied. (one reason you might want to make a concentrate is to extend the shelf life if you don’t go through wool wash all that quickly).
this recipe combines grated soap or boxed soap flakes, water, and denatured alcohol (mentholated spirits) with some essential oil to scent and act as an insect deterrent.
my results were good and the soap worked well; i could not have been happier with the washed fabric! and it was seriously less expensive than any commercial wool soap i had considered—important because we wash a LOT of woolens around here, especially when it’s time to wash all the shop samples.
one reason my wool soap was so kind to the fabrics is almost accidental—i used an old bar of homemade olive oil soap to make my wool wash and olive oil (castile) soap is extra conditioning—just what’s needed for wool.
i did find i wanted to change a couple of things the next time i made mine, though. first, i did not care for the smell of the denatured alcohol. while almost all of it dissipated after 24 hours of standing, i just wasn’t a fan of that smell; it didn’t sit right with me.
also, because castile soap is so rich, it doesn’t suds much at all. i could live with that part, but i was curious to see if i could change it any—like a kid with bubble bath, i love me some nice rich lather to squish through my fabrics. a wonderful reader who makes solid soaps gave me some tips and some leads about where to look next for ideas in creating the liquid soap recipe i wanted.
since then i’ve done more reading and research and have found lots of great information about liquid soap (here, i would like to recommend tracy’s blog, oh, the things we’ll make; she demystifies liquid soap making in a practical way that is really easy to understand and follow). making a wool soap without any alcohol is totally doable—not only that, it can be very, very simple and still save tons of money. and if you are willing to spend just a wee bit more time (not work!), you can make LOTS of rich, conditioning liquid soap at a very low cost that will serve multiple purposes around your home.
the last time i washed and blocked a few things, i noticed that our soap supply was getting very low, so this past week i prepared for the new year by making a fresh batch using my newest information; i thought it would be fun to update you on my latest recipe, which begins with liquid castile soap instead of the grated soap. one thing i learned while researching is that if you start with liquid soap, you will not need the alcohol to keep your dilution emulsified.
you can buy pure castile soap already diluted the full amount needed, and also in concentrated dilutions. i found this concentrated, semi-solid soap paste on sale last year at bramble berry, where you can also purchase a variety of other supplies. this two-pound jar will eventually make eight to ten pounds of soap; when i saw it i thought that this form would be easiest to store. it didn’t sound like it was difficult to dilute so i decided to try it.
straight out of the jar, it has the consistency of dried-out jello—leathery and kind of waxy. this paste does not dissolve instantly, so if you decide to go this route, be aware that it takes up to a couple of days to dissolve the paste. which is what i didn’t quite realize when i bought it. but once i read a little bit about using it, i was relieved that all it requires is a bit more time.
a couple of days before soap-making day, i warmed up enough water in a pot to make a two-to-one solution. i dropped spoonfuls of my castile paste in the warm water, placed the lid on, and then let it sit. since i had never done this before i was curious, so i went back every hour or so to give it a stir, watching it turn from hard paste to soft, then more like a gel, the lumps getting smaller and more spread out over the afternoon. by evening it was nearly dissolved and by the next morning, i had soapy syrup of even solution (no lumps). i let it sit an additional day because i hadn’t planned to use it so soon.
another thing i learned in my research is that coconut oil soap has great cleaning power and is a good sudser. be sure to buy one that is made only with coconut oil, so that you know what you’re working with (water, KOH or lye, and citric acid are normal soap ingredients).
if you combine liquid castile soap with liquid coconut soap, you have a great all-around soap for a variety of purposes. i decided i wanted to use them together for my wool soap and to try a hand soap as well.
as a little “extra” for the wool soap, i dissolved about a tablespoon of lanolin in hot water, then diluted that with the water i planned to add.
lanolin is very milky when it dissolves, but it will eventually clear. i left that to fully dissolve while i made the hand soap.
a fully diluted soap has four parts water to one part solid soap or soap paste. my 2:1 solution (three quarts) was much more than i was going to need for this batch, so i portioned off a quart to store away for future use (see—my next batch is halfway done!). i still had two quarts left that could dilute up to four; i planned to fully dilute the portion i would use for hand soap and only half dilute the portion for the wool soap, to make that a little more concentrated.
once your soap is liquid, the rest is easy. if you are starting with liquid soap, you can jump in here! i gathered all my ingredients (sorry i took out the alcohol and photographed it but didn’t use it).
i suddenly realized i was still going to end up with a LOT of liquid soap, so i ran around digging up bottles to use. luckily, david had the foresight to keep the last few bottles of wool soap he’d emptied and i found his stash on a basement shelf.
haha, scrubbing off the old labels took more time than making the soap!
the dilution is really a matter of taste. you can read more about this on the blog i mentioned above, but the author makes a good point—most people are pretty habitual about the amount of soap they use, whether it is concentrated or not. i tend to use a full pump of hand soap to wash my hands, so it does not need to be very concentrated. when i wash woolens, however, i tend to go with a “capful”, no matter how many i’m washing; i have to remind myself that a bigger load requires more. so in that case, a concentrate works best.
a fully diluted soap is a pretty thin liquid, but don’t be fooled that it won’t have cleaning power. cleaning power is not related to viscosity—think of how thin commercial household cleaners are. but if you enjoy a thicker liquid hand soap, you can achieve that by adding certain essential oils or a salt solution; the soap queen blog has a great tutorial for this.
i just realized that i’m making this seem really complicated by telling you all kinds of information that i learned, but really, making a liquid cool or hand soap is really REALLY easy, i swear!
after diluting one-third of my remaining castile fully, i added some coconut oil soap and i was done. a good proportion is 70/30 castile to coconut. since some essential oils fade over time and i like variety, i decided to add scent only to the amount i planned to use right away. the two bottles i was putting on the shelf remain unscented until further notice.
i also tested the hand soap in a foaming dispenser and it gave me a nice thick, rich foam, not that kind that’s all air.
next i finished mixing the wool soap concentrate, then tested to see if my dilution was to my liking and if using the coconut soap gave me the lather i wanted. i dissolved a teaspoon or so in a couple of gallons of water (my “capful”). SCORE! it’s nice.
half an hour later, still pretty sudsy; i’m sold. i will test it on some fabric in the next couple of days, when my next project comes off the needles.
i went ahead and scented the wool soaps once i bottled them because we use those regularly and in winter, we use a good amount. also, we need to wash all those shop samples again, so we’re going to be going through a bottle or two pretty soon.
the solution will be milky for a while until it settles—the more diluted or warm it is, the more clear it will become; concentrates can cloud up when stored in a cold area. i left the bottle sitting open for a couple of hours to cool and they all cleared nicely.
a light layer of essential oil and suds was still floating on top, but a quick shake disperse that. and i bet if i look again it might even be gone by now.
to use your soap, just add a teaspoon or two to a basin of water for hand washing and maybe one-eighth of a cup (two tablespoons) to each machine load. it’s good to experiment with a few hand washables in a basin to start; if the water is sudsy and feels slightly slick, that’s enough soap. if it feels quite slimy, you’ve added too much. i also recommend using a splash of white vinegar in the rinse water to completely clean the fabric of residue (from soap, dirt, or minerals in hard water) and to balance the pH of your fabric.
all in all, for about $20, i ended up with five big 16-ounce bottles of wool soap and three 8-ounce bottles of hand soap PLUS enough castile dilution to make another batch of the same size. if i purchased a diluted castile soap, i’d get four bottles for about $30—still a big savings. the main thing for me is getting a conditioning formula that leaves my woolens soft, fluffy, and gleaming with life—plus, i can share it with friends. and don’t forget, i also still have half a container of castile paste left . . .
i better get knitting to use up all that soap . . .