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Farmland Soap: Craft and Chemistry

MONMOUTH -- Chemistry was never an interest of Tammy Taggart's growing up. And she was never really high on craftmaking like her mother.

Tammy Taggart pours a completed batch of handmade soap into a wooden mold recently in Monmouth. Taggart started making soap four years ago for her father.

Photo by Pete Strong

Tammy Taggart pours a completed batch of handmade soap into a wooden mold recently in Monmouth. Taggart started making soap four years ago for her father.

February 27, 2013

MONMOUTH -- Chemistry was never an interest of Tammy Taggart's growing up. And she was never really high on craftmaking like her mother.

As such, the image of Taggart on this particular day could be seen as ironic -- she's clad in gloves and eyewear and embroiled in the holistic alchemy that is handmade soap.

A precise amount of olive oil steeped with annatto seed will add a yellowish color to Taggart

Photo by Pete Strong

A precise amount of olive oil steeped with annatto seed will add a yellowish color to Taggart's bricks of soap.

Taggart melts dollops of palm and coconut oil in a pot to a liquid state. Next she adds olive oil infused with annatto seed powder and chamomile; the former will turn the final product pale yellow, the latter "promotes gentleness for the skin."

Then she mixes them with a highly caustic combination of water and lye. A hand blender and time turn the concoction the consistency of pudding that's poured into a paper-lined mold. When combined, the ingredients will undergo saponification and turn into glycerin and soap.

Then it's time to clean up and wait.

"One thing soapers do is let the `dirty' dishes sit overnight," Taggart said. "You let what's left on them turn into soap and use it to clean up."

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Taggart's day job is as a software administrator and drafting technician in the civil engineering industry. When she's not producing roadway construction plans, however, she's operating her business, Farmland Soap. She makes all-natural soap from palm, coconut and olive oils, as well as ingredients such as oat straw, lavender and shea butter that require her to play cook and herbalist.

Farmland soap display

Photo by Pete Strong

Farmland soap display

"There's a science and precision in this that matches my personality," she said. "It's like following a really good recipe.

"There is also a creative side where you can let the mind go."

Walk through any gift shop -- especially in Oregon -- and it becomes apparent that handmade soap is in vogue. Even if you don't use them, how could you not stop to take a whiff of something with the name "Orange Mocha Dream Garden?"

Soap with natural ingredients can be beneficial to skin in the way that manufactured deodorant bars -- that are mostly just pressed detergent -- isn't, Taggart said.

Do you suffer from eczema? Soap infused with chamomile or calendula is known to soothe that. Plantain soap is said to aid in the healing of infections, while horsetail may help to smooth wrinkles.

"I'm not making claims because soap might not work for everybody the way it does for some," Taggart said. "But sometimes the chemicals and fragrances in commercial soaps can bother them."

Taggart, who lives in Monmouth, has been a "soaper" now for more than four years and started Farmland Soap in 2010. She occasionally does workshops, sells her wares in local gift stores and online. She's produced more than 1 ton of soap to date.

Taggart said she's always considered herself a fan of healthy living practices, though soapmaking resulted from her wanting to help ease her late father's suffering from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease which can affect the skin.

If many of Taggart

Photo by Pete Strong

If many of Taggart's soapmaking supplies look more suited to the kitchen or to a chemistry set, it's because the process is something like a combination of the two.

"It hurt his whole body when he showered," she said. "Commercial soap burned him and any prescription stuff the doctors gave him didn't work either."

Taggart searched online for something he could use and happened upon a video tutorial for making goat's milk soap. She gathered up ingredients and supplies, took copious notes and made an 8-pound batch.

"It was nerve-racking," Taggart said. "But that first load came out fabulously; sometimes for beginners, it doesn't.

"It's bizarre to me that you have lye, which is toxic, and it can become something safe you can put on your skin ... it's so cool."

Her dad used it, as did friends and family who received Taggart's soap as gifts. Every subsequent batch garnered more requests.

Because of the expense of ingredients such as essential oils -- 16 ounces of Rosewood oil, for example, can cost more than $200 -- Taggart decided her new hobby was too expensive to keep giving bars away, so she decided to start charging. And people kept coming back for more.

"I have one customer who constantly buys one type of soap, `Tuscan Sun.' She calls every couple of months for a couple of bars," Taggart said. "Once her husband started using it, he won't use anything else now."

Taggart said she's gotten more adept at the craft. It now takes her 30 minutes to finish a batch. She's also upped the creativity -- she's teamed with Rogue Farms to create a line of soaps made from beer and hops.

Taggart cuts the soap into bricks with a special homemade jig that uses guitar strings to size the smaller blocks.

Photo by Pete Strong

Taggart cuts the soap into bricks with a special homemade jig that uses guitar strings to size the smaller blocks.

"There are online forums for the soaping community where we'll start talking about `witches brew,' because we're over our (cauldrons)," Taggart said.

How It's Made

Handmade soap can entail a number of plant and flower ingredients for fragrance or exfoliants. At its heart, soap needs two basic ingredients -- different fats or oils and lye.

When combined, the components undergo a chemical conversion called saponification where they turn into soap and glycerin.

Tammy Taggart primarily uses coconut, palm and olive oils in her soaps. Coconut and palm oils give soap moisturizing properties; olive oil stimulates new cell generation and slows wrinkles.

Soapmaking is an exact art -- oil-to-lye ratios must be precise for saponification. The lye can be mixed with different liquids, such as goat's milk and even beer.

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To make Rogue Dead Guy Ale beer soap:

Step 1 -- Heat palm, coconut and olive oils to 110 degrees.

Step 2 -- Add the premixed beer and lye. Pour the lye into the oil, not the other way around.

Step 3 -- Add essential oils (mint, in this instance) to the mixture and beat it.

Step 4 -- Mix and look for the "trace." That's when the mixture has enough density that you can pour it on the surface and see droplets -- or the trace.

Step 5 -- Pour into a mold, insulate and let dry for two days. Then cut.

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For more information: www.farmlandsoap or email to ttaggart@farmlandsoap.com.