One of the questions that we are asked most frequently is, "what lies behind the name, Ash & Mill?"
In short, it is a name of origins, the natural chemistry behind where skin care started, turning plant oils and animal fats into a product that can be used to clean and refresh.
When wood burns, the organic material in the wood, like cellulose, xylose, lignin combine with oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide and small oxidised organic molecules, most of which are gasses, and are liberated in the warm updraft. However, the alkali earth metals naturally present in the wood, like sodium and potassium do not produce gaseous vapours, and remain behind as a ash after burning. Interestingly, ash is largely water soluble, and when dissolved in water, these sodium and potassium salts produce a basic solution.
This basic solution can be combined with plant oils or animal fats and cooked together to create soap. Fats and oils are most commonly made up of molecules called triglycerides. In triglycerides, a central glycerol molecule is bonded to three fatty acids. The basic ash solution of sodium and potassium salts hydrolyzes the carboxylic acid ester bond of the oils, releasing glycerol, which is a natural humectant, and the sodium or potassium salts of fatty acids.
It is this combination of glycerol and fatty acid salts that makes up natural soap, the product of ash, and oil from a press, or mill.
In the Western Cape of South Africa, the home of Ash & Mill, there is a rich history of soap making. In the 19th century, farmers would burn indigenous plants like the Ganna bush, commonly known as gannabos or lye-bush, Salsola aphylla, also and glasswort, Salicornia fruticosa, plants that were rich in salts, to create an ash. This ash, could then be dissolved in water to make a lye solution. The name glasswort stems from the use of this plant for creating, sodium carbonate, commonly known as soda ash which is used for making glass.
One these farms, after feeding their families and farmworkers from their stock of sheep, the remaining sheep fat was combined with the lye solution and cooked in large pots for several days. Many farms in the Karoo, spanning the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape even had soap houses, buildings dedicated to making soap. It is reported that through the sale of the soap, some farms were able to recover the cost of the sheep, making an important contribution to feeding the farmworkers and the economic viability of the farming operation.
The other part of the name Ash & Mill is that these are two prominent streets close to Arizona state University in Tempe, Arizona where Ash & Mill's founder refined his skills as a chemist. Mill avenue runs along the western border of the main campus, and Ash avenue lies in the heart of the adjacent Maple-Ash Neighbourhood, where the Casey Moore’s Oyster bar and the original Cartel coffee shop are found.
You can read more about the history of soap making in southern South Africa here.