At age five I was the uncrowned queen of modelling clay. I don’t think I had any remarkable sculpting skills, but I loved the stuff. Since it would keep me entertained for hours, my mother fed my habit and made sure I never ran out. I can’t really remember the shapes or figures I made, but I know that I loved the texture and the potential the clay held. Whether I made it that way or not the clay could be anything I could think up. And so, quiet as a mouse, I built up amazing stories around my clay figures – for hours and hours.
Then I grew up, became rational and responsible and forgot about modelling clay. I’ve never been a potter and in recent years I’ve used modelling clay only as a technical aid to build up suitably sized items for making soap moulds.
But then, a few months ago, this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6QZRFs76Yk) turned up on my Facebook feed. It’s a beautifully shot video of agateware pottery and whether you’re interested in pottery or not it’s a joy to see a skilled artisan create a beautiful item. Agateware (aka neriage or nerikomi) pottery is made with a technique where clays of different colour are combined and arranged to form a multi-tone effect sometimes imitating agate stone.
This article (http://www.michelleericksonceramics.com/pdf/CiA2003_Erickson&Hunter.pdf) written by Michelle Erickson & Robert Hunter shows the process in pictures and has some lovely pictures of antique English and Chinese agateware pottery.
The texture of the clay in the agateware video struck a note with the long-forgotten queen of modelling clay, but the swirled effect of the arranged layers also struck a note with the soapmaker. What if..?
Yes, what if you were to do this with soap? Could you create fine, multi-tone marbling by combining and shaping pliable soap layers of different colours the way you work clay? I.e. by hand-moulding layers of malleable soap rather than by pouring or swirling fluid batter..
After all, hand-moulded soap has long traditions.
As early as 1683, Gervaise Markham described hand-moulded skincare ’washballs’ in her book ’The English Houswife’:
“To make very good washing balls take storax of both kings, benjamin, calamus aromaticus, labdanum of each a like; and bray them to powder with cloves and orris; then beat all with a sufficient quantity of soap till it be stiff, then with your hand you shall work it like paste, and make round balls thereof.”
More recently talented soapmaker Bhakti Iyata of Sorcery Soap has made hand-moulded soap popular by generously sharing tips, techniques and high-quality images of her beautiful hand-moulded soaps and soap embeds.
Nevertheless, I had never seen any pictures of soap made in deliberate agateware marbling technique. And I had never made any ‘soap dough’ or other hand-moulded soap than soap balls for embedding in coldprocess soap.
First Agateware Soap
As it happens life took over and I got busy with other things. I didn’t think more about agateware soap until one morning a few weeks ago.
Late the previous evening I had been busy making soap embeds. When I had poured the embeds and put them to sleep until the following day, I got sidetracked and didn’t go back into the soap studio until the next morning.
After making soap I usually scrape all fresh leftovers off utensils and mixing bowls. I put the soapscraps in a designated mould where I forget about them until days later when saponification is complete and they can be safely used.
This time some leftover soap was still left in my bowls and I had to dig it out to do the cleanup. As I was scooping out the half-saponified soap it occurred to me that it had the exact consistency of modelling clay. It could be rolled into sticks, flattened and bent to whatever shape. There was some white, blue and black leftover soap and I quickly decided to see how this agateware thing would work.
I used a rolling-pin and between two sheets of greaseproof paper I rolled out little sheets of soap (I only had about 100g of soap in total) which I then piled one colour on top of another. I rolled out the pile with the rolling-pin and folded it like you do when making puff pastry and then I rolled some more. This worked well so I got a little carried away and rolled and folded quite a few times. Then I rolled up my sheet to a rod which I made thinner and longer by rolling it back and forth over the counter top. I cut the rod in a couple of pieces, placed the pieces next to one another and pressed them together. I then sliced through the rod with my wire cutter – and hey presto: we had agateware soap!
A crosswise cut revealed the marbling of different colour layers. It also revealed that my folding and rolling, folding and rolling had been a little overzealous. The contrast between the layers was becoming blurred. Next time I would do a little less rolling and folding. A valuable lesson learnt right there – with all of 100g of leftover soap. Experimenting need not always be very expensive..
This had been easy-ka-peasy, as we say in Cape Town. I wondered why I hadn’t seen hundreds of soaps made with this technique? Strange…
So, encouraged by my first experiment I decided to dedicate a small 500g batch to make a few proper agateware soap bars.
I did what I had done with the first batch for the embeds. I made the soap late in the evening. I used water at 20% of oil weight, I used a simple formula of olive, coconut and palm, I mixed at low temp, I blended to emulsion rather than trace, divided the batter into four small mixing jugs and added colourant to each jug of soap. Then I left it in the soaping studio which now, in the middle of winter, is about 16C, to saponify until the next morning.
In the morning the soap had perfect consistency, but I had other things to do so I packed each colour in a plastic bag and left it for later.
Six hours later when I got back it was still soft enough to flatten with a rolling-pin but it wasn’t pliable anymore. I could roll it out, but it had lost its plasticity and would crumble as soon as I tried to bend or fold it.
Next lesson learnt: we were obviously dealing with a limited window of opportunity here which I had missed this time around. Instead I was faced with 500g worth of oils, fragrance and colourant looking like very messy crumbles. Dang!
Luckily soap balls have been invented. Turning a 500g batch of soap into soap balls is not something I relish, but I figured it was a fair price to pay for the lesson about time limitations I had just learnt. The ensuing Grand Ball soap with Bramble Berry’s Blackberry Sage fragrance was not agateware soap but it turned out OK anyway..
At this point I felt dogged determination and in my head I could hear Churchill’s voice delivering the speech:
“we shall fight in the fields
and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender”
I wasn’t going to be defeated by the soap. I had made agateware soap once and I was going to do it again – just watch me.
Second Agateware Soap
Next try. Same procedure as before. Same formula, low temp, low water, minimal blending. I divided the soap roughly into four parts and coloured one part with blue ultramarine, one with titanium dioxide and blue ultramarine and the remaining two parts I coloured with titanium dioxide only.
For the design of my agateware soap I decided to draw on some of the inspiration from my recent trip to Venice where I saw lots of exquisite glassware. One of the most well-known Venetian glassware techniques is Millefiori, meaning ’a thousand flowers’. In this technique parallel rods of glass in different colours are arranged and pressed together to reveal a pattern (typically a flower pattern) on the cut surface when sliced through.
The technique is popular among polymer clay crafters, but is also used in confectionery as in this video.
If you google ’millefiori’, ’agateware’, ’neriage’ and ’nerikomi’ you’ll find hundreds of pictures and videos showing designs made in these techniques. As I said earlier I’ve never been a potter so I’ve only now discovered that there are at least as many pottery videos out there as there are soaping videos 😉
This time I made the soap early in the morning on a day I knew I’d be home to babysit the saponifying soap. I checked up on the soap every hour all day long and 12 hours later the white portion of the soap had reached the point of perfection. It had the exact consistency of pliable kiddies’ modelling clay. Stiffer than playdough, but very pliable and when pinching off a portion it made a neat peak without any sign of cracking and crumbling. It could comfortably be shaped and rolled out to sticks and it was stiff enough not to stick too much to my gloves.
The blue portions of the soap were decidedly softer, more sticky and a little too soft to comfortably roll out. But I wasn’t going to risk the white portion losing plasticity so I decided to go ahead anyway.
Between papers I rolled out two sheets of white soap. On the one white sheet I flattened out the dark blue soap and then placed the other white sheet on top. Then I rolled out this layered sheet and folded it, rolled it out, folded and rolled it again. At this point I had four layers of blue in my layered sheet and decided that was enough.
I trimmed the sides of the sheet and rolled it up from two sides around some light blue soap. I rolled my ’soap rod’ back and forth with my hands to stretch it out, cut it in three equal pieces and pressed the parallel pieces together, again with some light blue soap between. Gave the ’rod’ a few rolls back and forth and put it on 60C in the oven to firm up and finish saponifying.
The second, narrower rod I put together from the trimmings.
Without much excess water in the soap I knew that the oven heat would not force the soap to gel. I. e. I didn’t have to worry about the heat causing crackles in my titanium dioxide portions.
When my agateware soap was fully saponified I placed it in an upright PVC pipe mould. I made a batch of soap coloured with titanium dioxide and poured this white soap around the rod. And when I could finally slice through the soap with the agateware rod inside it looked like this:
You know that feeling when you make something and it turns out much better than you ever hoped it would? That feeling..
The uncrowned queen of modelling clay was very pleased indeed.. 🙂 Clearly my millefiori technique leaves some room for improvement, but as proof of concept I think this is rather amazing. My hand-moulded layers are well-defined and the simple colour scheme works nicely accompanied by Bramble Berry’s Energy fragrance.
The smaller rod made from the trimmings I sliced up to make little blue and white embeds. They ended up on top of this lavender blend soap and remind me of little flow blue china plates.
As nice as they look, these blue and white agateware soaps also came with some important lessons learnt. I only had one batch of soap so why were my blue portions of soap softer than the white when I started combining them in layers?
First, I had twice as much of the white soap as of each of the blues. With larger mass relative to surface area the white soap retained more heat generated by saponification and the retained heat probably increased the rate of saponification in that soap.
Second, when I added the colourant I gave the white soap a little bit of extra stickblending. The blue colourants I mixed in by hand only. The extra stickblending probably also helped the saponification along in the white portion.
So, despite being part of the same batch of soap with identical composition (apart from the colourants and the extra water to disperse these colorants), the different portions of soap went through saponification at different pace: the saponification was out of sync.
Although not agateware soap the texture on the freshly cut soap with the blue embeds top is quite interesting (I used sharp sunlight to show the texture; the colouring in the white portions is uniform) :
If you look at the bottom of the bar (to the right) you’ll see that the transition between the initial layer of white to blue is completely smooth without any funny ridges. Towards the top of the bar (to the left) ridges form along all outlines where blue and white soap meet. The explanation is simple but interesting:
I started the pour with white soap at emulsion rather than trace. As I poured the first bits of blue soap I decided that the soap was too fluid to hold up the intended ‘bubble’ design properly. I only had a very small amount of blue in a squirt bottle so there wasn’t much I could do about thickening the blue. But white soap I had plenty of and so I poured what was in my white bottle back into the bowl and gave it all another little go with the stickblender. Now my white soap had a thicker consistency than the blue and that was OK; the poured design looked better.
However, the extra bit of blending fast-tracked saponification in the white portion. I e the white portion generated heat and expanded and contracted at a different pace from the blue portion. I believe this out-of-sync expansion and contraction with ensuing tension and pressure build-up in the border areas caused the relief effect.
In the past I’ve been focusing a lot on studying the effects of different water concentrations in soap. I’ve come to think of this kind of out-of-sync relief effect as caused by differences in water concentration, but here the water content was exactly the same from the beginning of the pour to the end. The only thing that changed between the initial layer of white and subsequent layers was the extra blending. So, a good example of how agitation affects the rate of saponification and how that can affect the texture of the soap.
Third Agateware Soap
I wasn’t quite ambitious enough to try to create a full bar of agateware soap only, without any poured portions (I also don’t own a soap planer which would come in really handy when trimming this type of soap). But I wanted to try to incorporate agateware in a different design, in a log mould this time. Also, I wanted to see if I could synchronize the saponification of my different colour portions better by making sure that all the soap was left to saponify in equally sized portions in the same size containers.
Same formula and method once again, perhaps with slightly warmer mixing temps, but only two colours now: one part black (activated charcoal) and two parts white (titanium dioxide) in three identical containers. Made the soap late in the evening and got to it early the next morning. Now the white was at perfect consistency, but the black was already past its prime and beginning to crumble. I could have kicked myself for using the stickblender to mix in the charcoal.. So much for managing saponification in same size containers.
I made a rather desperate attempt to ’wrap’ the black soap between two white layers, but as I was trying to flatten it all out my top white layer was just rolling on top of loose black crumbles underneath. Dang again!
Well, this time I wasn’t in the market for any more soap balls so I lifted off the white layer on top and ’brushed’ out all the black crumbles beneath and chucked them. I was left with only whatever black had stuck to the white layers but decided to go ahead anyway. Roll, fold and roll. Fold and roll one more time. By this time the outside of my layered soap sheet looked like a very unappealing gray mess and I had a sinking feeling when I envisioned the cut surfaces being undefined, messy gray.
But, I wasn’t giving in. I cut the layered agateware sheet into strips and arranged them in my log mould and again put the mould in the oven at 60C.
My plan had been to pour light blue soap around the black and white strips, but thinking that the strips may just look sad and gray I decided to go with red to at least ensure some kind of contrast for interest. I’m not very big on red soap (irrational personal preference there) but red it was (iron oxide) and for a soap I thought I almost lost it turned out rather spectacular:
Looking at it now I’m glad I got rid of a whole lot of the black soap. Those strips don’t need any more black than this I think.
I see I could have planned the layout of the agateware strips in the mould better and I could have bent the strips more elegantly. I could also have trimmed the ends of the strips after they had hardened up in the oven. But, all in all I quite like this kind of design too.
To see if I could get more control over synchronizing the rate of saponification in different portions of soap I made one more batch. Same formula as before with a 1:1 water to lye solution this time. This time I also decided that waiting anything between 6 and 18 hours wasn’t really convenient so I decided to speed up saponification in the beginning and then slow it down as necessary as the soap was approaching the optimal consistency.
I mixed warm oils and warm lye and stickblended until as thick a trace I could afford while still being able to blend in my colourants which in this case were white kaolin clay, pink kaolin clay and activated charcoal, all dispersed in water.
When the colourants were in, the black and the pink portions weren’t runny anymore and I could scoop them onto a silicone sheet. I spread them in a thin layer each to get rid of as much heat as possible while the white portion was firming up in its mixing jug. When the white was beyond being runny I scooped it onto the silicone sheet with the other colours.
The black and pink were still slightly more viscous than the white so I piled up the white to retain a little more of the heat generated by saponification.
Messy pictures? I can assure you that you’re only seeing a fraction of all the mess! 🙂
With this kind of saponification management by monitoring consistency and adjusting thickness of spread I had all three portions at workable consistency at about three hours. They were all still a little too sticky for optimal working comfort, but they could be rolled out to sheets between papers and so I went ahead and started layering the soap gently.
Here the rolls are pressed together and embedded in soap coloured with pink kaolin clay scented with a blend of cardamom, bergamot, litsea cubeba and patchouli essential oils – Yum!. My synchronized agateware soap roll with natural colourants is looking pretty – although I could have held back with the folding and rolling a little. Love those hand-layered little spirals!
Knowing what I know now, I’d say my initial assessment of ‘easy-ka-peasy’ was a little premature.
With my low water formula the agateware soap technique is fairly demanding. As far as I can see it works only during a particular phase in the saponification process – when the soap is firm enough not to be too sticky, but still soft enough to be malleable: pliable and not crumbly. You need to hit that sweet spot – with all your colours simultaneously. With a different formula (with more water and suitable additives) you might be able to negotiate a longer window of opportunity – keeping in mind that you still want a durable, usable, hard bar of soap in the end. I haven’t tried different formulas so I’m only guessing – perhaps others will experiment with that.
Managing all your colours to be at the right modelling clay consistency at the same time is a challenge. But once you learn to control consistency the potential of this technique is pretty much endless: you can basically stack, pile, bend, fold, trim, combine, mirror and repeat any design or pattern you like which means that it gives you certain options that a regular swirled or poured technique doesn’t. The effects can be stunning – and you can let your inner child do the modelling clay thing once again 🙂