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Soap and Basket Classes at Cordell Hull State Park


We are already well into 2022; I hope everyone has had a great start to the new year.

If you resolved to learn new skills this year, visit Cordell Hull State Park in Byrdstown.

Rangers at this park regularly offer classes on crafts and skills and have even held open hearth cooking demonstrations called Appalachian Test Kitchen.

Last year, I attended two classes at Cordell - soapmaking and basket weaving. Both were outstanding introductions to these hobbies.


When I arrived for the cold process soapmaking class, the rangers had already set out all of the equipment we would need including the oils, lye, bowls, and hot plate.

Soap recipe, immersion blender, oils, and other equipment on a table for soapmaking at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park

I was a little nervous about using the lye, white granules that look like bath salts, because I knew how caustic it is. In fact, that is why I wanted to take a class in person instead of trying to learn to make soap from online videos. I was surprised at how hot the water got when we added the lye. Don't worry - we wore protective gear!

A cup of lye (white granules) with oils in background at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park
The white granules are lye.

We melted the oils using a hot plate, and we then slowly added the lye mixture to the oils. The lye thickened the oils into the consistency of batter.

A glass bowl on a hot plate with oils melting in it at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park
Melting the oils before adding the lye mixture.

The rangers had so many different options for us to customize our soap: different scents, powders to color the soap, and mix-ins like dried flowers. I chose to add only rose scent.

Yellow and pink powder, bottles of essential oils, and bags of dried lavender and cornflower petals to mix in our soap.
Mix-ins: powders to color the soap, essential oils for scent, and dried flowers

We poured the mixture into the soap mold and drew a pattern in the top with a fork. When we left, we got to keep the recipe, the soap mold, and almost two pounds of the soap we made.

Soft soap hardening in the plastic and wood soap mold at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park

After 24 hours, I cut the soap into bars and then let it cure for two weeks.

Bars of soap are stacked on top of each other.

I have enjoyed using and sharing the soap. Now that I am on my second to last bar maybe it's time for me to join another class!

Basket weaving

My second class was learning how to weave a basket tote, and now I know why baskets sold in stores are so expensive - they take a lot of work! I will never look at a basket the same way again; each one is a work of art requiring hours of time and focus to complete.

I had no prior basket weaving experience so it was great that our instructor had already started our baskets for us when we arrived. This basket had a solid wood bottom, and we dove right in weaving the sides where the instructor left off. To make the reeds easier to bend, we sometimes sprayed them with water.

Early stage basket over a small plastic trash can as a mold with a spray bottle of water nearby at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park.
We used a small trash can as our mold when we began.

We added black leather straps when we neared the top.

Basket more than half way woven with black leather straps attached at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park

When we finally made it to the top of the basket, we folded over the ends of the reeds and encircled the top with rounded halves of reeds and seagrass and tied this edging down by weaving thin reeds around the top.

Thin reeds are wound around half of the basket top to tie on the seagrass and rounded reeds at the top.

Our instructor had plenty of colored reeds for us to decorate our basket however we liked. I was tempted to add some color but decided to go with a classic look and leave it plain.

Rolls of colored reeds lie on the floor at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park

The finished basket with black leather straps sits on a picnic table at Tennessee's Cordell Hull State Park.
My finished basket!

I enjoyed these classes and have my eye on a couple more coming in the next few weeks. Who knows, I might find my next passion!


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