This is a long overdue post about a small soap-making workshop in Ayvalık that I visited back in 2012. Many things interfered, and I have not had a chance to share this interesting experience. Looking back, I remembered the two visits I made to the place and enjoyed remembering everything anew.
I had no idea how soap bars were made. For all I knew, the melted soap might be poured into molds, but the reality was vastly different. During my first visit, I met the owner and saw the double-story high boiler where they melted the ingredients. The furnace was on the first floor and they could take the molten soap soup from either the loft or the second floor to pour on the floor. The floor was made of smooth concrete with rail-like dividers creating shallow troughs where the molten substance was poured and evened out, much like pouring concrete walkways.
The top of the boiler was covered with boiling molten sludge spattering interesting patterns. The small bucket with a long wooden handle used to get the hot sludge was hanging on the side of the boiler. And a few small buckets made of wood used to carry the sludge to the pouring area were stacked on the side. There was some leftover material waiting to be melted for the next batch. The owner promised to let me know when they were ready to pour soap again in the next day or two.
A couple of days later I got a call from Suleyman, who seemed to know everyone in Ayvalık, that they had poured the soap already and gearing up to cut it. We scrambled to the small workshop, now the floors were covered with thick soap layers, about two inches deep. The two brothers, Metin and Mustafa, and Metin’s son Fatih were getting ready to mark the lines and cut the thick layer of soap into small soap bars. They were some of the few remaining soap makers in town and worked for the owner on contract.
The process is a tedious one involving marking intervals using a compass and snapping chalk lines to mark where the cuts should be made. On the top floor, they had two soap colors as you will see in the photographs. After taking some photographs there, we moved to the loft area which had a very low ceiling where they were ready to cut the bars. The poured soap there was greenish-yellow, so they used purplish chalk to mark the lines. After that came time for cutting, which was a two-man job. While one held the cutting blade attached to a wooden handle and guided along the line, the other carefully pushed on the cutting blade using another wooden-handled tool. They would make one pass and turn around and come back on the next line, one line at a time. Then the crosscutting would create blocks of soap waiting to receive the maker’s mark.
As Fatih and his uncle Mustafa worked together to cut along the lines, his father Metin kept busy on the other lanes making sure that the thickness was uniform. He would measure the depth with a long blade and start shaving if the area were too thick, continuing along the length of the lane scraping thin shavings of soap to even the thickness.
While photographing them performing their craft, I wanted to create photographs that were not frozen in time but showed them moving, working. You will notice many of the photographs will show motion blur although I used a flash to illuminate the area. I did not want the flash to dominate an area and leave the rest in the dark. So, I used a slow shutter speed, mostly about 1/15 seconds which used what little light there was in the area and allowed some motion blur to record, showing the men actually working.
Before I left Ayvalık, the soap master Metin brought me a bag of soaps he made at home on his balcony. We enjoyed them while they lasted; they have a nasty habit of dissolving in the water!!