Mitchell’s Wool Fat (MWF), and the supposedly identical Kent Brush shaving soap, has a legendary status in the traditional shaving community. It is regarded by many as the gold standard in shaving soaps, yet some people don’t get on with it. Part of their problems could be the normal different strokes for different folks syndrome that enriches real shaving so much. Part of it could be the way that MWF behaves.
The thing about MWF is that it doesn’t do what other soaps do, it acts almost as if it is a living thing. Use it on consecutive days and it gets better and better, as if it appreciates the attention. Leave it for a week and it will have a sulk and try and give you a bad time. Left for a while it becomes a loner, forming a hard skin round itself. Too long and cracks appear in the surface as it displays its displeasure.
This is what Mitchell’s themselves have to say about this soap:
Mitchell’s Wool Fat Soap was first produced in the early 1930’s by Bradford chemist Fred Mitchell who realised that the natural lanolin content of wool fat, which kept the hands of local sheep shearers and wool sorters so exceptionally soft, could also be beneficial to delicate complexions and sensitive skins
A simple and natural product, Mitchell’s Wool Fat Soap is still made to Mr. Mitchell’s original formula, based on a recipe from the turn of the century and incorporating lanolin from the wool fat as the key ingredient.
So what is this wool fat of which they speak? When a sheep is sheared between 5 and 25 percent of the wool’s weight is wool fat, produced by the sheep as waterproofing. This is removed from the wool, initially with steel rollers and then using detergents and centrifugal separators. It has a lot of uses including in medicine because it is hypoallergenic and bacteriostatic, it forms the basis of many ointments, where it is listed as lanolin.
One useful feature is that this is an animal fat produced in large quantities without killing anything. So strict vegetarians can get the considerable benefits of products like MWF. In fact on the side of the MWF box it says: “No animal suffers in the preparation of this bio-degradable product”.
So how do you manage your puck of MWF so that it gives a brilliant lather every time? Firstly don’t expose it to the air between shaves, it need to live in its own microclimate. The best way to do this is keep it in a hermetically sealed container such as a Tupperware box, you can find one the right size or you can mill the soap puck to fit.
Milling is very popular in the traditional shaving community and makes any soap perform better. Firstly you need to grate the soap puck up in a kitchen grater, then you put the flakes into your container of choice, then use a weight to compress it and remove the air. This process is so successful that many luxury soaps are “triple milled” using steel rollers.
If you mill at home you should aim to only half fill your container, as a maximum. You need space above the soap to form the lather. Also you can use small containers to make MWF convenient for travelling with. After each shave the residue of lather left on top of the soap adds to the microclimate keeping your MWF ready to perform optimally next time it is used.
Another point about using MWF is that it is a hard soap. So if you use a very expensive floppy silver tip badger brush you could have difficulty making it work. You really need a brush with some backbone, I tend to use an Omega 49 Professional Pure Bristle Shaving Brush, which is made of boar hair and is perfect for the job.
There is no doubt that Michell’s Wool Fat is a great real shaving product, but with a little bit of technique it can be truly excellent.