Appalachia Cleaning

Lye Soap

Today’s guestpost was written by Carol Isler-who happens to be a dandy soap maker!

Carol Islers lye soap

Soap Making written by Carol Isler.

My first interest in soap making came from watching Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies stir the contents of her soap pot out by the cement pond. I imagined my great-grandmother doing the same thing in the yard by the Green River up in the North Carolina mountains.

The first year Dollywood opened up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, my husband and I took our young daughter. There was an old granny-looking lady dressed in period costume out in front of a log cabin facade stirring a pot of soap over glowing embers. I stood to the side and watched while she explained what she was doing to a little group of tourists right in front of her. When they left she acknowledged me with a nod and a grin, and I just stood watching for a long time. It was late in the afternoon and hot. She looked a little haggard, and I guessed she didn’t want to waste her breath on only one observer. I asked what the soap was made of because I had missed the beginning of her demonstration.

“Lard and lye.”
“That’s all?”
“That’s all, except for water.”
She reach over in a basket and handed me a small chunk of soap that she had made that morning. It looked and felt like white American cheese. But it didn’t smell like cheese.
“This will eat my hide off, won’t it?”
“Naw. Nothing gentler than lye soap.”
“Really? Nothing?”

She went back to scooping the hot soap from the cauldron into wooded soap molds and packing it down. I bought a bar from her for five bucks, a lot of money back then. That began my love affair with homemade lye soap. It made my skin feel good and I wanted to keep that. I was determined to find out how to make lye soap for myself, back before there was this thing called the Internet.

Soap made by carol isler

The only book I could find on making your own soap was Ann Bramson’s Soap: Making It Enjoying It. I think I ordered a copy form Pick-A-Book bookstore at the mall. That book told me you could use other fats besides lard. I began saving my beef fat so I could render it for tallow soaps (which makes the best soaps, in my opinion). I looked for olive oil on sale and stocked up when it was. Coconut oil was kind of hard to come by around here back then. I had to drive to town to get it at an organic store way on the east side.

At school, I ran across an old high school chemistry lab book that had a soap making experiment in it and studied up on the chemical reaction of soap making, saponification.

I thought it would be fun to make some for Mother’s Day presents, like the plaster of paris hand prints you do at Bible School. But when I looked through all the chemistry lab books I had for saponification labs, they all said to throw the soap away when finished since it would be too harsh. Most gave the amounts in volume measurements, not mass. That didn’t make sense to me because chemistry is all about stoichiometric relationships. I wanted my students to be able to carry home a chunk of lye soap to use. Back then, I could only find one book on making lye soap at home with lard or tallow and Red Devil Lye. Now there are dozens of books from the experts.

I started with my Chemistry II class. That first batch was plain lye and lard, measured to the nearest tenth of a gram, a perfectly balanced chemical reaction. We added about a half cup of olive oil for extra moisture. When it was stirred enough, the hot, lye-fat mixture resembled custard. One kid said it made him hungry for banana pudding. We poured it up in a Rubbermaid shoe box, wrapped it up in an old quilt to insulate the exothermic reaction, and left it on the lab bench till class met again on Monday. It was hard for me not to peek, but I promised them I wouldn’t. When the first of the students came into the classroom, I had to swat a few hands (you could do that back then) to keep them from peeling back the quilt before everyone got in the class.

I pulled the still-warm box from its covers and lifted the lid. The hardened block of soap had pulled from the sides of the mold like a cake pulls from the side of a pan. It looked and felt like greasy provolone cheese. We flipped it out of the box and cut it into bars with a butcher knife (something else you can’t have in school nowadays). The book said to let it cure for a couple of weeks before using, to dry and harden. We laid the bars out on borrowed, green plastic lunchroom trays and placed them on top of the storage cabinets to dry, out of sight out of mind. I did manage to sneak a bar and kept it under the big lab sink. I quickly learned that if you wash your hands with a good, balanced lye soap you don’t need hand lotion.

Well, that was the beginning of my obsession with lye soap making. Once I tried to make soap the old timey way, by leaching the potassium hydroxide from wood ashes. I saved our fireplace ashes all winter in metal buckets in the garage. A lady who did lye soap demonstrations at Walnut Grove Plantation and Musgrove Mill told me how to do it ,but didn’t tell me the amounts. My experiment was a mess. I was able to make an egg float in the ashes-water, but without the precise lye measurements, I wasn’t sure about how much fat to use. The soft soap was excessively greasy. And within a few months it smelled rancid.

Soap by carol isler

Once I mastered formulating, I entered some of my recipes in a contest at the South Carolina Soap Makers Conference. In 2000, I came home with Best All Round Soap in SC for my multi-layered Oatmeal Apricot Scrub Bar and The Ugliest Soap for my unscented Goat’s Milk Castile, which was baby-poop yellow.

I’ve been making and using soap personally for twenty years. I wish I had this knowledge and skill back when Daddy was still alive. He always had dry, itchy, skin. He rubbed his back against the door frame to scratch the itch. I started calling him Dusty. If I didn’t use handcrafted soap, I would be in the same fix, probably leaving a trail of dust every where I went. Handcrafted soap helps my skin behave like it should.

If you haven’t tried handmade soap, do me a favor and contact me to try some. I love making soap for people. I’m sure you would like it. Make your skin happy. Let me be your savonnier.


Tygerheart fine soaps by carol isler

I hope you enjoyed Carol’s guestpost as much as I did. You can check out Carol’s Etsy shop Tygerheart to see her soap selection. I’ve been lucky enough to try Carol’s soap myself-and its fantastic.

Carol generously donated the soap in the photo above for me to giveaway-want a chance to win it? Just leave a comment on this post to be entered in the giveaway. (Giveaway ends Wednesday July 3rd)


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  • Reply
    Ray Presley
    March 5, 2021 at 8:20 pm

    Back in those days lye was an ingredient in lots of things. My mother and some of my aunts used it to make hominy and then mush or grits. I also heard them say that lye soap was easier on the hands than the Octagon bars from the store.

  • Reply
    Renee Daigle
    July 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve been following Carol for a couple of years on Facebook and would love to try her soap… :0)

  • Reply
    August 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Thank you for the great comment! And congrats on finding the soap! I’m so glad you were helped by something on the Blind Pig and The Acorn!!
    Hope you have a great weekend!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

    • Reply
      Barb Day
      February 18, 2019 at 1:47 pm

      i have been looking for the redipe for lye soap that calls for pig lard, woodashes, ox blood, buttermilk and barn red paint. Have you ever heard of this ? thank you. New email [email protected]

  • Reply
    August 8, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you so much for writing about lye soap! For years I used “mild” Jergens. I admit I bought it because it was the cheapest I could find. For years I’ve been getting itchier and itchier with a creepy, crawly kind of itch. I was told that skin dries out with age and gets itchier. Obviously this was my problem. What else could it be? I was using mild soap after all.
    After reading about lye soap, I stopped in at a soap store in downtown Asheville, which shall remain nameless. I told the person I wanted to try lye soap as I heard it’s good for dry skin. She told me I’d been misinformed. All soap contains lye which is very harsh. Their “granny” version has the highest concentration of lye and I really, REALLY needed try one of their milder variations. I nearly caved, but told her I wanted to give it a try anyway and bought a bar. It smelled great.
    In less than a week the itching stopped. What a relief! I am a convert! I researched the ingredients in Jergens, Dove and Ivory. None contain lye and they all have pretty much the same weird and yucky ingredients that I never want to touch again.

  • Reply
    Marcie (quiverfull12 -U Tube Name)
    July 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

    plz enter me to win soap! I’very been really wanting to make soap too for many months.
    Interesting comments here too.
    BE blessed.

  • Reply
    brenda s 'okie in colorado'
    July 2, 2013 at 5:25 am

    Brings back great memories of my great grandmother making lye soap. I don’t know her recipe, but I do know she used fresh rendered lard. She made it in a huge black pot outside her farmhouse. She used it to bathe, laundry, and wash dishes. How I would love a bar for my dry skin here in Colorado.

  • Reply
    Dee Parks
    July 1, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    My grandmother made it as her mother had shown her. I saw it being made in Missouri at Silver Dollar City. My mother also told me that they used lard and lye to make the soap.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    July 1, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    Forgot to say I’d love to be entered have a chance to win a bar of soap.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    July 1, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    I remember both of our Grandmothers using Fels Naptha. I don’t remember anyone using homemade lye soap, but they probably did before my time because they made everything by hand back then. I still can’t help but think of those Grannys when I smell Fels Naptha, and I think our youngest sister keeps a bar on her kitchen windowsill that she got at Mast General in Asheville for just that purpose – memories.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    I make and sell soap myself. I’ve been making soap for a little over 13 years now. I started making soap because I have a bazillion allergies to stuff and soaps/shampoos/conditioners are major offenders. I’m allergic to almost anything that contains a petrochemical in it which means all the commercial “soaps” and shampoos make me break out in hives, big hives, little hives, red hives, white hives, you name it, I’ve probably had that kind of hives from a cleaning product. I had taken chemistry in high school and in college and a friend of mine said how about trying to make your own handmade soap…so I started out making castile soap…nothing but olive oil, water, and lye….and OMG…the love affair began! It eventually got to a point where it was either start selling soaps or build a new house made out of soap. LOL Now I make soaps, lotions, creams, bath salts, and sugar scrubs, and balms as they all just sort of go together. I’m slowly but surely building my little business (just have to try and work it around working the “evil day job” that pays the bills for now.) Carol is correct in that a properly made handmade lye soap is so much more gentle on your skin than most commerical soaps…and for 2 main reasons…most commercial soaps aren’t even soap, they are detergent bars. Secondly, if they are actual soap, when made commercially, they do a particular process with most of them so that the glycerin which is part of what nourishes your skin and makes it feel so good and moisturized,is removed and sold as a separate product. All my soaps are made from vegetable oils. Many of my customers are vegan or vegetarian and either cannot or choose not to use products containing animal fats. all a matter of choice. The reason that lye soaps got such a bad rap is that long ago, they didn’t have a lye that was a consistent strength like we do now, because it was made by running rain water through wood ashes and the strength depended on the type of wood, the amount of ashes to wate, etc. It’s fascinating to find out how different people get started doing the same thing. Thank you Carol and Tipper for sharing the delightful story!

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    I would love to win a bar of lye soap.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I love this post! I want to learn to make soap!

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Enjoyed the story very much – always interesting to hear how folks find their way into things they love to do. And I have a pretty clear recollection of Granny Clampett’s soap kettle, too! 🙂
    Plain unscented olive oil soap is what I usually use these days, but I don’t make it myself. Maybe some day. Meanwhile, thank you for the giveaway opportunity – I would love to try this soap for my dry, dry, dry skin. And I’ll “favorite” Carol’s etsy shop for future reference, too!

  • Reply
    Tim Mc
    July 1, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I can barely remember my mamaw Evans making lye soap years ago,, best I can remember they cooked it in a big black pot outside…

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Tipper, me and my daughter rented two rooms from a dear lady Aline Atkinson in 1960-61 in Sumter S.C. She gave me a small wire basket with a handle, which you open and put a piece of soap in it, then swish it in hot dish water. I bet it had a lot of lye soap used in it. I have it hanging in my bedroom on an old lamp stand from my childhood days in WI. God Bless,

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    I’m a soapmaker and love to hear how folks get interested in learning. Carol, thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Please put my name in the pot. I would like to try this.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Great Post! Got a chuckle from Ed A.’s comment, too.
    Bet Carol’s soap is wonderful to use.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I would love to have the soap. What I remember & have been told doesn’t seem to match modern soap making. Did they stir lye into the grease in the wash pot, & was the grease hot?
    I would love to make some but I’m scared to fool with lye.

  • Reply
    C. Ron Perry
    July 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Here is a song that we used to hear about 50 or 60 years ago:
    (John Standley and Art Thorson)
    Do you remember Grandma’s LyeSoap?
    Good for everything, everything in the home
    And the secret was in the scrubbin’
    It wouldn’t suds; It wouldn’t foam.
    Mrs. O’Mally, Down in the valley
    Suffered from ulcers, I understand
    She swallowed a cake, of Grandma’s LyeSoap
    Now she’s got the cleanest ulcers in the land!
    Little Herman and Brother Thurman
    Had an aversion to washing their ears
    Grandma scrubbed them with the LyeSoap
    And they haven’t heard a word in years.
    So sing right out for grandma’s LyeSoap
    Good for everything in the home
    And the secret was in the scrubbin’
    ‘Cause it didn’t suds or foam.
    So sing right out for Gramdma’s LyeSoap
    (Sing it loud and clear)
    Good for everything, everything in the place
    The pots and kettles, the dirty dishes
    And for the hands and for the face.
    A variation on the Lydia Pinkham/Lily the Pink/Bertha’s Mussels theme RG
    Copyright John Standley and Art Thorson
    Capitol Records: 1952.
    filename[ LYESOAP

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I’ve made our laundry soap for a few years now, for reasons of economy, but I’ve not yet made bar soap. Hm…I have a small cast iron pot that I bought in a thrift shop a few years back; it needs a crack brazed up (I can do this); ‘twould be a cute thing on all Hallows’ Eve, standing in the front yard in a long coat, mumbling to myself whilst stirring a cauldron…

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Interesting article Tipper, it sounds like a trial and error project without having the measurement of the ingredients necessary to get the proper consistency for it.
    I used to make beeswax candles and I really enjoyed working with the different scents as well. I like working and making “crafts” with my hands, anything from woodworking to jewelry and anything in between.
    Thank you for sharing this article.
    Happy 4th of July Independance Day to you and your readers on Thursday. Our holiday Canada/Dominion Day is July 1st, which obviously is today.
    Angie in New Brunswick, Canada

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    July 1, 2013 at 11:29 am

    When I was a kid we butchered hogs every fall, rendered lard, smoked hams and bacon, and made soap out of the part of the lard that wasn’t quite up to snuff. The soap always came out brown because the leftovers of the lard still had a lot of little pieces of crackling in it. That gave the soap a sort of sandpapering effect somewhat like Lava soap.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I’ve never made soap unless you count melting the small remnant slivers together to create a larger, easy to handle “bar” of soap.
    My daughter-in-law and older granddaughters made soap from a kit for Christmas two years ago but my glitzy girls added lots of “fairy dust” (glitter) – – pretty for a while but a bit rough.
    Making soap is on my bucket list – I wasn’t allowed to make soap in my middle school science classroom – the lye was considered too dangerous – – maybe with Carol Isler’s tutlage I can do it now – I’d also like to learn how to make my own lye – – lot’s of ashes available now since we’ve been clearing understory brush and dead limbs to reduce fire danger. It’s a bit ironic that we burn the brush (in a barrel) for fire control.
    One more thought/question: has anyone used the soap on psoriasis? My sister was an operating room nurse and between the constant hand scrubbing and being on her feet so much, her hands and feet are in bad shape – wonder if this soap would help.

  • Reply
    Sheila Waddell
    July 1, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Great post Carol!

  • Reply
    Sue Simmons
    July 1, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I love The Blind Pig and Acorn it takes me back to my days on the farm when my family made lye soap and rendered lard we also made hominy in a big black cast iron pot. I wish I had some lye soap it might help my itchy skin. I am 79 years old with dry itchy ski. Keep up the good work Tipper

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I enjoyed the Soap-making journey
    from Carol Isler. Not only is there
    Chemistry understanding, but she
    knows how to use down to earth
    explanations of her work. One time
    I bought some good smelling “goat”
    soap from a friend in Nantahala.
    She bagged each bar in a pretty
    little pouch with a nice bow. I
    have two daughters that helped me
    with the softer side of life and
    they seemed to like it…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 1, 2013 at 9:39 am

    I wonder if you could use bacon fat to make soap and if so would you need to carry a stick to keep people beat off you when you went out.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Tipper, don’t know much about making soap but, my granny used to make it. I always thought anything with lye in it would eat your skin off; shows what I know.
    I was gone most of Sunday and although I knew about the post RED IS THE ROSE, I didn’t have time to comment before I left so as Momma used to say, “I purposed in my mind” today I was going to to tell you how much I enjoyed it. The girls are so good.

  • Reply
    Gina S
    July 1, 2013 at 9:07 am

    After reading this post, I’m itching to try the soap. I bet it would be great for my grands who have allergic issues with most commercial soaps.

  • Reply
    Pamela Moore
    July 1, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I started making soap years ago with limited success. My soap tended not to harden completely. After some research I learned that hard water can upset the lye to fat ratio. I now use bottled or rainwater and have better results.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

    We only use homemade soaps and I’d love to try Carol’s. The blacksmith makes pine tar soap. That seems to help with his hives.

  • Reply
    steve in Tn
    July 1, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Enjoyable post. I have never made soap, and only seen it made a couple of times. Funny how old things become new again. You definitely made me want to try it again.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:36 am

    I remember both my grandmothers making their own soap. I think only one of them used the ashes though. I vaguely remember (I think) my step great grandmother also saving ashes for soap. Dad made it a couple of times and then was able to earn enough money to buy the ‘store’ kind.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:36 am

    This was fascinating reading. The soap making must have been difficult because I don’t recall even my Grandmother making soap. I sure would like to try it and will place it on my bucket list.
    In the forties we lived in a Coal Camp for awhile. I vaguely remember an elderly lady next door who dressed in long home made dresses complete with apron and bonnet, and she turned her yard into a corn field. She made her own soap and shared. She reminds me a bit of myself minus the bonnet. These skills and customs can be lost so easily, and many thanks to Carol Isler for keeping this skill alive.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

    This was a very interesting lesson in how to earn and learn through experimentation. I must say I am fascinated by the use of some chemicals. I am a big proponent of goat’s milk soap. I use it daily for bathing.

  • Reply
    Bob and Inez Jones
    July 1, 2013 at 8:11 am

    I remember my Mom making soap when I was very young but she must have started to use store bought. I have used some homemade hand soap and always found them very lovely. I would love to try this one should I be so lucky. Thanks for another informative blog,Tipper.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    July 1, 2013 at 8:09 am

    The process of making the soap looks interesting. I didn’t know that lye soap could actually be beneficial to the skin. My wife and I need to try it.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 8:08 am

    hmmm. i’ll have to see about doing that! i keep looking at all these recipes for dishwasher soap and laundry powder, etc. but the initial ingredient outlay is always more than just buying it would be! maybe i can do this, i wonder where i can get lye here, blue moon elise, maybe???

  • Reply
    Dan J Russ
    July 1, 2013 at 8:04 am

    I really don’t need the soap. My skin is creamy, soft, supple and wrinkle free. That’s the lye. All I need now is the lard. Has anybody seen my wife?

  • Reply
    Joyce Taylor
    July 1, 2013 at 7:50 am

    I would love to win the bar of homemade soap.

  • Reply
    Halcyon Morrison
    July 1, 2013 at 7:48 am

    Your post about making soap has inspired me to try making soap too. Isn’t tallow rendered beef fat? Is Red Devil Lye still the preferred lye to use? Thanks for the post!

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Thank you for a chance to win!

  • Reply
    Patty Hall
    July 1, 2013 at 7:25 am

    I love using home made soaps! I just went to her etsy shop, but then I saw this was a giveaway so I’ll wait to see if I win before I order. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 1, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Carol, what a wonderful post and very timely for me. I’ve been interested in making soap for quite a while now. Saturday was my first try at it. A friend and I worked together to gather all the necessary tools. recipes, and supplies. Our soap was simple….lye, water, olive oil, and essential oil. We used the cold method and it turned out beautiful! My friend is from Lebanon and grew up with homemade olive oil soap. He had been telling me for years that olive oil makes the best soap in the world.
    Thanks for your post I find this process very interesting!

  • Reply
    Bill Dotson
    July 1, 2013 at 7:16 am

    This post brought back great memories for me because Mom used to make lye soap at home all the time, I don’t know what all she put in it but sure do remember using it. Thanks so much Carol and Tipper.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Have thought i’d like to learn to make soap but never have. Would probably be much better than the store bought kind.

  • Reply
    Carol Stuart
    July 1, 2013 at 6:32 am

    Really enjoyed this story! Haven’t won a prize in my life (except for my husband and my daughter)so maybe this will be an exception.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2013 at 5:47 am

    Loved your guest post today and would love to win so I can see if this soap would help my dry skin…

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