Savon de Marseille:

Everything Old is New Again

Rissa Peace Root © 2004

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Click to Enlarge Okay, don’t laugh. I made this amazing discovery, a product that will actually get all the pencil marks and graphite smears off of my work. To my shock and surprise, it was not some slick new product, but a very old one. I have been doing a lot of French Heirloom Sewing lately and was horrified to see my lovely white baby clothes turn a dingy gray. I read and reread the washing instructions in the layette designer’s book, but I was doing everything she advised. I had soaked them first, used Ivory and a soft tooth brush, hand washed them in Biz and Oxy Clean, allowed them to soak over night. And yet, although there were no more distinct lines, the booties were still gray. I finally had to resort to using chlorine bleach, which is a drastic measure for such fine batiste and something I would never recommend.

As I completed other projects and continued to have trouble with graphite migrating into the fabric and threads, I started to look for a more effective method of cleaning my hand work. Then I remembered something I had heard in class, but not really taken note of, until I read it again in a book on Provencal quilting. The teacher had said she used plain Savon de Marseille as the first step in cleaning her finished items. She said it casually, but of course being French and having spent a lot of time in Provence, it was something she took for granted. Her work was impeccable and there was no dingy gray residue and since I had tried everything else she had suggested, I got online and started looking for Marseille soap.

I discovered that “Savon de Marseille” was not a brand name, but a type of soap that was first produced in southern France. Because of the abundance of raw materials, the area was famous for its soap long before the 1688 Edict of Colbert set out specific rules regarding soap making and the use of the “Savon de Marseille” mark. Only soaps that were made according to is displayed. strict methods, using natural ingredients (excluding any animal products) were allowed to bear the mark “Savon de Marseille”. They were further required to be marked with the percentage of oil used and the gram weight. Marseille soap is made from vegetable bases, sea salt and alkaline ash, which are then cooked and purified for two weeks before the mixture is poured out and allowed to harden. During the final steps in the process, the hardened soap is cut it into cubes or bars, stamped and then air dried.

In modern times, the term “Marseille Soap” and “Marseilles Soap” are used to describe high quality olive, palm and copra oil based soaps, regardless of their origin. In fact, one of my favorite brands is actually produced in Italy, although its production can be traced back to France. Marseille soap is traditionally white, beige or green, depending on whether it was made with palm, copra or olive oil as a base. If you are using it for laundry purposes, stick with dye and fragrance free selections. Marius Fabre and L’Amande both produce large cubes marketed for household use, as well as “laundry flakes.” I have also tried and liked products from Pre de Provence and L’Serial. Although you do not have to buy Marseille soap specifically formulated for laundry, you will want to avoid anything with additives if that is your intent. The large cubes and blocks (over 200 grams) are almost always natural soap, however, bars under 200 grams are often made from shavings and have added fragrance or shea butter to make it more pleasing as a face and body soap. While this is great for your complexion, you might want to stick to the original formula for the best laundering results.

I don’t think that Marseille soap is the only answer to this problem, but it certainly worked for me. It also gives you a benchmark for buying the best natural, all vegetable soaps. I am sure that other vegetable soaps will work as well. Heck, as one person suggested, you can even make your own, but I am sold on “Savon de Marseille” no matter how it is spelled. I now keep a large block by my kitchen sink and a box of flakes in my laundry room. After buying several different brands online, I noticed that they had some Marseille soap at Marshall's and TJ Maxx. They all had added fragrance, but I was able to find a few bars that did not have shea butter or dyes at very reasonable prices. After the experiment, I retired the bar of French Verbena Marseilles soap to my master bath.

Author's additional note:

I had someone send me a pieced CQ block that the post office dropped in standing water. The ink from the envelope was all over this beautiful white and cream block, made of all fancies. It was also watermarked, stained and so wrinkled that I did not think it would be recoverable. Needless to say, I was near tears. I got it home, washed it in a tub with Marseille Soap and soaked it over night. It came clean and dried well, there are only a few small red marks remaining, mostly on the cotton foundation. So for those curious about using it on different fabrics, this is a positive result from a large block made of a mix of satin, silk, rayon, polyester and goodness only knows what else.

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