Thursday, January 26, 2012

Washing with Lye

For a few years now I've been planning to make some lye soap.  When I first read about it in an old timer's book, it seemed like a fairly simple plan.  I just needed to build this contraption to catch the lye.

The plan was to build a large wooden box to dump the wood stove ashes into.  Then it would be connected to a drain board connected to a bucket.  Dump the ashes in all winter.  Let it snow, let it rain, water it down, collect the lye.

And then make soap.  But the whole process was sounding rather time consuming, smelly, and somewhat dangerous.  I left it to simmer in my head.  TShadn'tHTFyet so, no rush.

And then I watched Tales From The Green Valley, a British documentary of life on a 17th century farm.  And they got a might dirty over their year on that farm.  And they had to do laundry down at the creek.  And they made themselves a batch of lye to wash that laundry with.

And they didn't make soap.  They poured the lye directly over the laundry, then beat it clean.

Well, that's easy enough, isn't it?  I could do that.  Well, I'll let the washing machine do the 'beating', but I could make lye for laundry.

I started with two 4L ice cream buckets.  They stack, and the plastic ridges hold the inner bucket an inch or so higher than the outside bucket.  I poked holes through the bottom of the inside bucket to allow the lye water drain.  I put in a coffee filter, and wood ash.  Added about 4 inches of water and waited impatiently.

It took forever to drain.  In my second attempt I removed the coffee filter.  Very little ash leaks through and it drains faster.  It seems to work best if I leave it to drain overnight though.
The lye water seems more potent.  The first load of laundry I tried needed to be rewashed.  The second load was ok.  But laundry after leaving the lye to drain overnight turns out quite nice.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the smell- almost like that fresh air scent from line drying.  A pleasant surprise in the winter.

Further research reveals that pine ash is not recommended, and soft water is.  I have pine and poplar ash and hard water, which could be why my results aren't great.

I think I'll be sticking to store bought soap for town clothes, but the lye water will be fine for farm clothes.  Time will tell, too, I'm sure.  If things don't seem to be getting clean after a few washes, I'll reassess.  


  1. Won't the lye eat up the clothing? Good experiment.

    1. No idea. All my research says that lye is caustic, don't get it on your skin, wear rubber gloves, don't use metal utensils... I haven't gotten a burn on my skin at this point, and I'm not wearing gloves. Maybe that's another attribute of pine ash over hardwood? Maybe it's just weaker? Maybe it's more diluted and therefore less potent? I really don't know. I just hope it doesn't eat through the washing machine. I figured this was a good time to try it though, since the washer has been making funny noises for about a year, and leaking for the past couple of months. It's on it's way out anyway, so it won't be a huge set back if the lye eats through it. No damage that I can see at this point though.

  2. So did you love Tales from the green valley? I think it's actually my fav one of the series. TVO has Edwardian farm scheduled to start this month.
    Have you tried making laundry soap with Borax,washing soda and a bar of ivory? I just made up 6 like a charm.
    Oh and Hi How have you been? We're all good just sick of the rainy weather. I want my SNOW!!!!

    1. Hello! lol. Yeah, it was great! Thanks for sending the link! It was fun watching their beginnings in the adventure, when they didn't seem to know everything. I'll have to check that out. It'd be nice to see it on the big screen, lol.

      Nope. What's the difference between ivory, fels naptha, and the yellow bar soap they sell at no frills?

      The more I use the lye water, the more I like it. Old stains seem to be fading away. I've looked at things marked for farm while folding laundry, and wondered why I marked them for farm.

      I'm good, thanks, lol. We've got snow! I think we're up to about 5 feet now. Come up and play!

  3. You have a very cruel streak running through you!!!! 5 feet???WAHHH!!! Hopefully we will be up the second week of least that's the game plan as of today..with your brother who knows? lol So tell your hunny to get his sled ready.

    I think all of those soaps would do the trick. I make it as a liquid but you can just mix it as a powder.

    1. There, I took lots of pics and did a post just for you. You should be happy. I had to trudge around through all of that snow! Hope to see you guys soon!

      Ok, I was just wondering.