Instead of cleaning out your wallet, some homemade holiday gifts can help recipients keep clean and tidy up the planet at the same time.

Instead of cleaning out your wallet, some homemade holiday gifts can help recipients keep clean and tidy up the planet at the same time.

That's the case with all-natural soap made from plant-derived oils, which is gentle on skin and doesn't harm the environment. It's also easy and inexpensive to personalize plain soap for unique presents and stocking-stuffers.

"You can make this soap in any shape you would like," Linda Chesney tells participants in a November soap-making class at Ashland's North Mountain Park Nature Center. "You could make a little Frosty the Snowman."

Starting with soft, unscented soap ends purchased from Sappo Hill Soapworks in Ashland, participants simply knead in dried flowers — lavender, rose or calendula — harvested from the center's garden. Clove, peppermint and lavender essential oils add aroma before participants shape the soaps to their liking.

"It's like Play-Doh but with purpose," says Ava Owens, 42, of Talent.

The activity appeals to kids of all ages, including Owens' 12-year-old son, Henry, who plans to give his visiting aunt a Christmas gift of soap. Often imported, vegetable-base soaps usually cost several dollars per bar in specialty shops. An entire pound of soap ends can be purchased in any scent for just $1 at Sappo Hill.

"We're using local products, so that's part of the sustainability message," says Chesney, stewardship coordinator for the Nature Center. Making soap, she adds, is a "noncommercial" way for families to prepare for the giving season.

Consisting of palm and coconut oils, as well as glycerin, soaps like Sappo Hill's are made with renewable resources and don't contribute to animal cruelty, either from testing or obtaining ingredients, says Chesney. Many common soaps and cleansers contain petroleum products that harm the environment, she adds.

Nature provides inspiration for most soaps crafted at the Nature Center's sold-out class. Ashland watercolor artist Janet Quaccia, 61, sculpts a roly-poly rabbit scented with lavender, followed by a calendula-colored turtle. The figurines likely will find homes with her grandchildren, says Quaccia.

"You have to pick things that don't have limbs," she says of her infrequent attempts at sculpting. "It's so cooperative — it's like clay or something," she says of the slippery medium.

Twelve-year-old Chance Swenson of Ashland also eschews square, round and heart-shaped molds in favor of fashioning a pair of pale mushrooms — scented with calendula petals and clove oil — sprouting from a free-form base.

"Me and my friend hunt for mushrooms," Chance tells Chesney. "We hunt for chanterelles."

Chesney advocates wrapping the uncured soap in waxed paper to keep oils from soaking into fancy gift wrap. Labels add a thoughtful touch.

"I really like all your little soap packages," says Henry of Vicki Ashford's technique for tying raffia bows.

The soap would have plenty of time to harden before Christmas, adds Chesney. A more in-depth workshop on making soap, which requires lye and safety equipment for handling the caustic alkaline soda, is planned for next year at the Nature Center, 620 N. Mountain Ave. See or call 541-488-6606 for details.

New cakes of soap remain soft and pliable for less than a week after their manufacture at Sappo Hill, which recommends keeping fresh ends in sealed containers in a cool, dark place if they're intended for molding. The factory, located at 654 Tolman Creek Road, operates weekdays. Call 541-482-4485 for hours or see for more information.

Glycerin soap bases ready to melt and pour into decorative molds can be purchased at local craft-supply stores or online. Candy molds and cookie cutters also can be used to shape soap.