PEMBROKE — Among the plethora of vendors scheduled to be at the 50th annual Lumbee Homecoming will be Mitch and Nena Lowry, who will be offering handcrafted soaps that bring back memories of their childhood.
They live in Columbia, S.C., but have deep roots in Pembroke. They have been making organic soaps together for the past six years.
“Both our families — my husband’s family and my family — are no stranger to making soaps,” Nena said.
Nena and Mitch both remember using soaps made by their grandmother when they were children.
Nena grew up in Pembroke and Mitch’s parents are from Pembroke and Prospect.
“We had a knowledge of soap because we had used old-fashion lye soap that grandma used to make,” Nena said.
The soap they remembered didn’t smell so good because the measurements were all off, Nena said with a laugh.
“You might get a bar of soap and as they would say ‘It would bite you’ because they used too much lye in it. It would be lye-heavy,” Nena said.
Nena’s grandparents butchered hogs and made soap with fat or oils accumulated over a certain period of time.
“You may get some and it was nasty looking, and you might get some cracklings in it from when they cooked pork cracklings at the end, and then sometimes you can get it and it would be just as pretty as can be,” Nena said.
Mitch was the first to become interested in making soaps after seeing online that a class was being offered.
“That’s what peaked my interest,” he said. “This is something I thought we could do together just for ourselves — for our family.
“It has become much bigger than that.”
He and his family have been using natural soaps for years because store-bought soaps dry out your skin, he said.
He and his wife took the three-to four-hour class from a woman who was a former chemistry professor at Converse College.
“It was a great class. We learned a lot. We walked away with soap,” Mitch said.
The couple then tried to come up with a formula to make a low-cost soap that was high-quality and all natural, free of preservatives, hardeners, artificial fragrances and coloring.
The process was trial and error.
“About every mistake you can make, I think we’ve done at least once,” Mitch said.
A soap can’t be considered soap unless it goes through the process of saponification, which is the chemical process that occurs when combining fats or oils with lye, he said. Finding the right balance is what makes quality soap.
“Lye is very caustic. It irritates the skin,” he said. “You have to be careful with the chemistry part of it.”
When making their product, they first mix the water with lye if it’s water-based or goat’s milk and lye if it’s their milk-based soap. The lye heats the water or milk. They wear gloves and goggles to protect themselves from the chemical.
Mitch said they use a lye discount, which means they don’t use 100 percent lye so there’s more fats ratio-wise to the lye. That makes the soap less harsh.
They add the water and lye to a mixture of fat or oil, which can be lard, olive oil, shea butter or coconut oil, and then blend the mixture until it reaches “trace,” which is when the liquid is at a thick, creamy stage.
Nena colors the soap with a mica powder, a coloring made from the mineral mica. The mixture is then poured into wooden molds lined with freezer paper. They set the molds into a proofed oven for about 24 hours until it has hardened. Nena cuts the bars, and the soap sits for about four weeks.
Each batch makes about 48 bars of soap.
“We profile it so that it has the qualities of cleansing, good lather and creaminess,” he said.
The couple’s soap has a natural, rustic look, which is intentional.
“I really did not want it to look like something that can be processed or produced in a factory. I wanted it to look like something that’s handcrafted and homemade,” Nena said.
“It has to look good and smell good and work good,” Mitch said.
The couple produces a variety of soaps with scents such as Hippie Chic, which is a lavender blend, Cuban Tobacco, and Peppercorn and Fig.
After starting out with regular bathing soap, the couple has expanded to making shaving soap and shampoo. They say customers will be hard-pressed to find their soaps online because they like to talk to people personally about the benefits of the products, which is why they choose to be vendors at events such as Arts on Elm and Lumbee Homecoming.
“I actually like talking to the people and finding what that like and recommending things,” Mitch said. “You can’t tell what people like just by looking at them. You have to talk to them.”
“I enjoy when people buy it and I get the feedback, ‘We loved that soap, or we loved that lotion,’” Nena said.
Their booth will be set up at Lumbee Homecoming on Saturday.