It was a week before Christmas in 2018. Juliana was in the cantina of her nonna’s house, helping to cut up cured Italian prosciutto for the holiday. As she and her nonna were trimming off excess fat, her nonna said that her mother used to make their own soap, using fat saved from the animals on the farm. She would mix in bay leaves and lavender, giving them the faintest scent. The thought of making something that’s both crafty and useful stuck with Juliana over the winter.
As a crafty person, she enjoys the process of making purposeful items, so on a cold day in February, she decided to attempt her first batch of soap, made from scratch. Many hours were spent researching the soap making process, but she felt ready to try it for herself.
With many college-level courses and industry know-how behind her, she felt confident in the chemistry behind soap-making. Cold process soap making, utilized by Amherst Soaps, relies on a compound called sodium hydroxide, or lye, to split fat molecules. Overall, fat molecules are pretty stable, explaining why we can heat them so hot in cooking, so it takes a very strong molecule to break them apart. Lye happens to be the perfect fit. The process by which the lye breaks the fat is called saponification, resulting in soap! After this initial fat breakdown, the soap must be cured to allow the saponification reaction to complete. This curing period also allows the bars of soap to harden, ensuring they last in the shower. At Amherst Soaps, we cure our soaps for 4-6 weeks. We also generously super-fat our soaps, meaning we calculate for unreacted oils in our batter. This excess oil is what makes our soaps gentle and moisturizing for your skin. If every molecule of fat is reacted with lye, the soap is very harsh on skin, and is actually used as laundry soap!
Because lye isn’t very friendly to fats, it can be dangerous in its raw form. Originally, Juliana wanted to make soap with the students she taught, as a way to learn about chemical reactions, but given lye’s danger, she did it as a demo instead. The students were more than thrilled seeing a useful chemical reaction and were also satisfied with melt and pour glycerin soaps to make their own instead.
Since Juliana began selling soaps as Amherst Soaps in May 2019, she has also become quite the businesswoman. This was her first venture into the business world, and although Amherst Soaps is still quite small, it has provided her with countless business lessons ranging from simple bookkeeping to photography. In early 2020, Juliana made Amherst Soaps into a fully functioning LLC as a way to increase her wholesale base and to create a website, amherstsoaps.com. Now, customers can find soaps in many retail locations in the valley, or online!
Regardless of her business adventures, Juliana and Amherst Soaps has a commitment to local. Impressed by the local food scene in the valley, Juliana realized many of her ingredients could be sourced from the area. This meant not only a gentle, handmade soap, but one that reduced its carbon footprint and supported the community as well. Currently, Amherst Soaps strives to include local products in each bar of soap. Most of the time, this is creamy, hand-rendered lard from other vendors of the Amherst Farmers' Market such as, GO Farm in Hatfield, or thick, golden honey from Quaboag Trading Co. in West Brookfield. Even better, both of these are found on Saturdays at the Amherst Farmers Market as well! Truly local goods being used in great-for-your-skin soaps.
Amherst Soaps can be found on alternating weekends at the Amherst Farmers Market, or at many farm stands and stores in the Amherst-Hadley area. For a full list of soaps we offer, local businesses we source from, and all retail locations, check out our website, AmherstSoaps.com!
Bringing you organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, locally-sourced blog posts on a semi-weekly basis from the Amherst Farmers' Market.