Essay by Louisa Canham, Founder.
First published in Lagom Magazine, 5th Ed - October 2017 .
Growing up in Greece, my early memories are imprinted with a lack of detail but vivid associations. Yellow and blue horizons. The sound of crickets. Hot sand and rocks underfoot. And a beautiful array of scents: wild mountain herbs, jasmine, chamomile, citrus blossom. A sensory soundtrack to formative years, which found me much of the time making things. Working with my hands has been a continuous thread, though until recent years it hadn’t occurred to me that this could occupy more than a peripheral place in life.
When I was 22 I did my doctorate at Oxford University and trained as a clinical psychologist. With a specialist interest in children and adolescents, for over 10 years I worked with traumatised unaccompanied children seeking asylum, young people in paediatric care, kids on the autistic spectrum and with learning disabilities, adolescents with eating disorders, and young offenders in prison. On a personal level it was an interesting and largely rewarding time, and the perspective-giving experiences of the families whose paths crossed with mine still resonate. Nonetheless, being exposed to the vulnerabilities of the human condition can be difficult, and there came a point — particularly after I had my own children — where I found myself seeking something gentle and therapeutic to mediate the impact.
The summer of 2011 was to offer the seed of what has become. Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, as one is rarely able to predict the significance of experiences in the moment. I was visiting one of my oldest friends — nowadays a harpist living a largely self-sustainable lifestyle on the outskirts of Athens — when she brought out of her larder a tray of gently scented soap that had been cut into creamy, rough chunks. I was quite struck by it. Obvious though it is to me now, the process required to make such an item of function and beauty had simply never crossed my mind. Returning to Oxford after a few weeks in the Mediterranean sun, inspired, and with a book on the craft of natural soap-making, I bought buckets, some oils, and, in whatever free time I could find, began to experiment.
In simple terms, soap is a salt created through saponification — the chemical process that happens when the acids of fats and oils react with a strong alkaline solution. There are many different ways of making soap, but in the traditional cold-process approach, which I used from the outset, recipes are first and foremost made up of oils that are chosen both for the physical properties that they individually lend to the soap (such as hardness, stability, and lather) as well as their skin-care qualities. Under precise temperature conditions, the oils are blended with caustic soda until the mixture reaches a thick consistency, at which point essential oils and dry ingredients, such as clays or spices — also chosen for their function and aesthetic value — are added. The liquid soap is poured into moulds and these are wrapped in blankets to help the hardening mixture maintain the natural heat being generated by the reaction between its ingredients. Within a day, large bars emerge from the moulds and are cut into individual soaps that need about six weeks to cure. This means that the original traces of caustic soda evaporate, leaving each soap a solid amalgamation of its raw natural elements.