January 18, 2022

The joys of clean living

Soap making fulfills on many levels

Photo provided by Tammie Whitson

Tammie Whitson of Marathon makes a variety of soap, including laundry detergent.

Tammie Whitson likes the chemistry of soap making.

“It feels magical when you put these ingredients in a pot and they come out completely different,” the Marathon woman said.

She fell in love with the process 20 years ago when she took her first soap-making class. Now a professional soap maker and co-owner of Cinch Art Space, she teaches others how to make soap, as well as selling her bar and liquid soaps, at the 75 E. Court St., Cortland shop, where she produces Cold Brook Farm wares, named after her farm.

“I love how it appeals to so many of the senses: smell, touch, pretty colors,” she said. “I’m a big fan of art that is functional. A good bar of soap is a beautiful thing.”

She doesn’t worry about losing her market to people if they start making their own soap.

“When you take a class, you see: This is complicated. ‘I am not sure I would want to do this on my own’ … People that have taken my class have become some of my most loyal customers.”

That same element of science Whitson appreciates is what appealed to Chad DeVoe, an environmental teacher at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services, in his New Vision classes at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

“It’s something I do every year. The purpose of the class is to be hands-on and gain as much experience as possible,” DeVoe said.

Photo provided by Chad DeVoe

Gabby Fowler and Hannah Aldrich, both of Cortland, measure lye during a soap-making class at the New Visions environmental class at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

“It’s a good project. There’s a lot of chemistry in it. Teachers in the classroom don’t have the luxury of time to make soap. We have a 2 1/2-hour block with students. We can get messy. Kids love it. When we get done doing it, they want to do it again.”

Soap-making from scratch requires three ingredients: oil, whether animal or vegetable, water and lye, according to the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild of Saratoga Springs, which promotes the industry with 3,600 members. Those ingredients, mixed in the right proportions, combine to create soap.

New Visions students usually make soap to take home and for gifts.

“This year, we made a couple extra batches and sold soap at the gift shop as a fundraiser,” DeVoe said.

Lime Hollow Nature Center on McLean Road, a non-profit, gets a cut of the proceeds. The teens’ portion goes to pay for their Raquette Lake trip.

Kids collected pine needles, chopped them up and put them in the soap for a Balsam fir batch.

“Last year we made insect repellent bars with citronella and eucalyptus. We put those in the recipes,” DeVoe said.

They also make their own labeling and do their own graphic design.

“We have done dry lavender and put that in. I have had students that lived on goat farms bring in goat milk for bars,” DeVoe said.

DeVoe has been using the cold-press method with the kids the past five years, mixing lye and fat and cooling it while water heats in another pot.

“When they reach the same temperature you mix it together,” he said. “When it’s like yogurt, you add the essential oils and colors.”

Photo provided by Chad DeVoe

A soap batch by New Visions students.

The mixture is poured into molds and is cured for 24 hours. Then it is cut into blocks.

“We haven’t gotten into making essential oils,” DeVoe said. He wants to. Now he buys his from the Local Food Store in Cortland.

Maggie Liddell, a Tully high school senior, found the soap-making segment “extremely satisfying.”

“Something as simple as mixing a weak acid and a strong base to make an essential product — that you will use every day. You can see the chemistry happening before your eyes,” she said. “My favorite part was when we added the essential oil and and color to make it our own.”

Photo provided by Chad DeVoe

Gabe Cline of Homer watches as Nicolette Starmer of Cortland pours soap into a mold in New Visions environmental class at Lime Hollow Nature Center

Whitson grew up south of Binghamton, “I lived in Brooklyn about 12 years. I met my husband (Pete). He works in tech, I was a teacher,” she said.

The two wanted a quieter life. They looked for a place that was close to several city centers: Binghamton, Syracuse, Ithaca. Marathon was the mid-point of several.

“We found the farm,” Whitson said. “We love it. We absolutely love it. One of the nice things about it, we are 3 1/2, four hours away from New York City. We can go back any time.”

Whitson started making her own soap at home, using the cold-press method, and sold it online at www.coldbrookfarm.com. She sold it at craft fairs, farmer’s markets and festivals.

“In 2013, the opportunity came up to have a store front, she said of Cinch Art Space. “I did that with two other women.”

Cinch was originally owned by Brenda D’Angelo, who owned Pure and Simple Yoga, and Kristin Avery. “Their life situations changed,” Whitson said.

Now Whitson owns the shop with Tina Minervini, a board member of the Cultural Council of Cortland County. The two feature unique items by area artists: scarves, bags, art works, stationary, jewelry, soap and more. They offer classes there, including Whitson’s soap classes.

“I don’t do festivals any more. Everything has come to Cinch, my studio,” she said. “It’s where I teach classes, it’s where I sell the product.”

She sells solid and liquid bars, laundry soap as well as shampoo and facial soaps. “You name it.”

And with the need for constant hand-washing in this day when people don’t want to get sick from COVID-19, her soap cleans while being gentle. She even makes a laundry soap that’s 100 percent coconut oil.

“It makes an excellent detergent,” Whitson said. “The soap strips oils away.”

Soap makers have to be careful and use less than 30 percent of coconut oil, because it can dry out skin. She talks about these proportions in her class.

But coconut oil is the ingredient that provides really big bubbles. “That’s why we put it in,” Whitson said.