At the recent Arts & Sciences Championship, Elska Fjarfell was named both the Populace Choice and Kingdom A&S Champion for her making and researching of medieval soaps. She graciously shares her words with the Gazette.
What is your SCA name (titles)?
Elska Fjarfell (submitted but not registered yet), no titles.
How long have you been in the SCA and what group are you from?
Since november 2014, living in the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn.
You’ve just been made Kingdom A&S Champion – tell us a little about your craft.
I competed with medieval period soap made from potash drip lye and rendered sheep tallow, one soft soap and one salted-out hard soap. In contrast to modern handmade soaps, the medieval recipes I tracked down use a hot process instead of the better known cold process because the hot process allowed for deviation in the strength and purity of the lye. I also showed samples of my path to get there, including my research and experiments on how to make pure charcoal and how to drip lye strong enough for soap making.
What got you interested in it?
In my mundane live I sell fine art photography and all natural goat’s milk soap at our local Ithaca Farmer’s Market (a juried artisan and organic farmers market, which has been listed as a top 10 US destination). When I started my soap business I always wondered about making soap completely from scratch; we’re homesteaders, and as I have most ingredients in ample supply at our homestead I thought this championship would a good excuse to do some experiments. Little did I know this side project of mine would become such a huge undertaking!
What are some problems you encountered researching your craft, and how did you overcome them?
Tracking down medieval manuscripts. I started looking as soon as I joined the SCA last year and it took me a year before I found the four I listed in my documentation. Then I found that the medieval recipes are not as complete in ingredients or technique as you might think (maybe because of translation, you need to know the technique to know what it actually means, or maybe because of deliberate incompleteness, so only people of the guild could duplicate the recipes correctly) and I am still researching and experimenting to get the best, or most functional, interpretation. If anyone knows of more soap making recipes from the 17th century and earlier, please let me know.
What did you think of the A&S competition format? What did you like and dislike about it?
Having entered in Ice Dragon last year, where only the documentation speaks for the project, I really appreciated the time spent with the jurors and the general public. It is much more informative face to face, I found, as the artisan can go right for any question or interest of the visitor and have a more in-depth conversation. But I missed being able to meet and greet with the other artists as I only had a 20 minute break.
What advice would you give someone wanting to enter an A&S competition?
Don’t worry too much about the documentation, it’s about the entry. But that does not mean having a clear idea and historical background for your entry is not important – in my experience, the documentation is used to be able to place the entry at the right skill level and for historical relevance. So see the documentation as your lab notes – not so much as an insurmountable research paper – to give proper context to your entry, and you’re ready to compete!
What do you have planned for the future for new projects or further research?
I would like to be able to make a reliable lye/oil neutral soap on the level of guild production using only techniques available at that time. I would love to be able to do demonstrations over open fire at, for instance, Pennsic, and show all the different stages hot process drip lye soap goes through before it is finished. With a little help from modern techniques, mostly measuring, I can make a decent medieval soap now but I want to be able to learn to make good soap as indicated in the recipes, which use arcane skills to know when to add more lye or fat and when the soap is done – skills learned in guilds, taught from father to son and only sparingly put to paper. I am collecting manuscripts from after the guilds period but before the invention of pure sodium lye to get a better understanding of the manufacturing part and it looks like I might have found a couple interesting new ones recently (time for more kitchen experiments!).
What would you like to see more of with A&S in the Kingdom?
As an aspiring Brewer I would love to see Regional and Kingdom level Brewery competitions, as quite a few of the A&S events are on dry sites… and from experience, more transparency in how (and where) competitions are conducted, ahead of time, and in detail, so artisans can prepare beforehand and know what is expected of them when entering. I thought Fridrikr and Orianna did a marvelous job doing just that with the Kingdom A&S Championship; it sure made the challenge of competing a lot less stressful!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I did not expect a simple soap making project to create such an interest, and I am happy I persevered even though quite a few of my trials became rather interesting errors (and then became perfect moments of learning after a good thinking things over, rechecking the paperwork and extensive Googling) and I ended up being quite the example for my too-scared-to-fail-to-even-try seven year old son!
Thank you for this awesome opportunity,