Homemade Soap

Introduction by Sarah Heffner.

Pennsylvania Germans made no frills “homemade soap” from old fat, water and lye. In the 1960s, my mother, Laura Wolfgang, would make batches of homemade soap for home use and for relief packages for Mennonite Central Committee. (Commercially produced soap is now added to relief aid.) Ladies at church would save their cooking fat for her. We would find paper bags with tin cans of fat in the car after church. And she would make us kids leave the kitchen when she cooked the soap as she didn’t want us breathing the fumes from the lye. The soap was poured into metal tins and cut in blocks.

Beginning from the left: Mrs. Jacob B. Moyer weighing the fat to calculate the proportions of fat, water and lye to cook soap, stirring the soap mixture, cutting into bars for laundry, dishwashing and personal cleaning. Photos by H. Winslow Fegley, circa 1900; Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.

The end product was strictly utilitarian, while the recipe we’re presenting below by Heather Gingrich has nice coconut and essential oils in the recipe. This is a project for adults because of working with the sodium hydroxide (lye). Follow the precautions listed on the product container. Sodium hydroxide is available at home improvement stores. Like many crafts, making this once will produce an appreciation for the work that goes into one bar of soap!

Cutting finished soap into bars. Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

Make your own laundry soap

By Heather Gingrich.

Laundry Soap Bar (adapted from Soapmaker’s Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch)
(can be used as a hand or body bar, a stain stick, made into laundry gel or powder, or as a solid dish washing bar)

Step One:
Following safety guidelines for making soap, dissolve sodium hydroxide (lye) into water, stirring until clear in a well ventilated area, then add the borax.
224 grams sodium hydroxide
16 oz water
Add 4 tbls borax
Set aside and cool to 100 degrees

Meanwhile, combine in separate pot and heat to 100 degrees.
6 oz water
½ Tbls salt
1 Tbls sugar

Meanwhile, combine in separate large pot and heat to 100 degrees:
16 oz coconut oil
21 oz vegetable shortening OR lard
14 oz palm oil

Step Two:
When all three pots are between 100 and 110 degrees combine the lye mixture into the oil, stirring briskly, then add salt and sugar water.
Use emersion blender or spatula to stir until trace is reached. Stir in 4 tbls of baking soda, 2 oz eucalyptus essential oil and 1oz lemon essential oil.
Pour into molds (makes about 4 pounds). Insulate with towels for 18 hours and then unmold.

Step Three:
Cut immediately into stain sticks or dish washing bars or shred bars with a cheese grater or food processor to make laundry gel.

To make laundry soap powder:
Grind 4 oz of laundry soap with 8 oz borax and 8 oz washing soda. Repeat until entire batch of soap is finished as soap will eventually become too hard to grind.

To use as gel:
Grind the entire soap recipe and then add 2 liters (8 cups) of water and heat to boiling. Boil for one minute, then turn down to medium low heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, place into heat proof container and mixture will solidify into gel after about 24 hours as it cools. This gel can be used as laundry soap, stain gel and diluted as needed to clean floors, appliances and counters.

A tip for using either gel or powder laundry soap:
For average size load use two tablespoons of powder for top loader, one tablespoon for front loader on warmest setting possible. Double amounts for sport clothes or extra-large/extra dirty. All loads will benefit from using white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener and deodorizer.

Heather Gingrich, of Simply Green, Simply Green, produces handcrafted, small batch cold-process soap with natural and locally sourced ingredients.

8 thoughts on “Homemade Soap

  1. Excellent post! I’ve know people that made soap but never had the privileged of being around when a batch was being made.

    One question about this part of Step 2:
    Use emersion blender or spatula to stir until trace is reached.

    What is meant by “trace” ?


    1. Sorry for not explaining! Trace is reached when the soap recipe does not separate into layers anymore- the oils do not float on top and the “batter” starts to thicken. Using a spoon, ladle a small amount of “batter” on top of the rest, like a trail, and if it doesn’t sink back down, you’ve reached trace!
      – Heather

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother would shave home made lye soap into a cup and add water and place it on the back of the stove Sunday night so next morning she used that soft soupy cup of liquid as laundry detergent. Really worked well.


  3. I’ve never known people that made soap but never had the privileged of being around when a batch was being made.
    It’s a great post! I like how they gave all the steps for making soap!


  4. Happy to find this site! I’m going to try the soap recipe (original version with 100% lard cuz my neighbour is butchering a pig and gonna give me a bunch of fat to render. ) Do you see any issues with using only lard? Also, what is the purpose behind the salt/sugar/water mixture and why can’t that be incorporated into one of the other mixtures right away? Just curious.


    1. Thanks for the questions! Using only lard will do two things- make a soft soap that will probably take the shape of its container (won’t hold a bar form well) and it will provide less cleaning power. Coconut helps with both of those issues. Lard is a good replacement for palm oil in recipes and needs to lye adjustment. The lye amount might need to be adjusted for replacing coconut. The sugar and salt are added to the lye in order to dissolve properly and not leave a grainy texture- if added to lye they increase the Sudsing of the lather.


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