Tending Bars

Tending Bars

Saffiyah Shahid’s soaps, known as SAFfyre’s Herbal Butters, aren’t pillow-shaped buns in factory white but rather decisively angled ingots veined in purples and reds and golds. They might have been harvested from a volcano or a coral reef. You want to bathe with Shahid’s soap, certainly, but first you want to arrange the bars in the center of your coffee table.

“I care about presentation. I feel like, at the least, you got to have imagination,” Shahid says, in light of the infinite variability of soap as a formulation—colored, scented, mixed with whatever can be poured into a pot—even before it’s shaped. Soapmakers have the option of pouring their mixtures into grid-like molds—silicone trays of the sort that can also be used to make ice cubes—but Shahid uses a mold to produce a single large block she then slices by hand. The ridged blade she uses leaves its ridges in every cut. “I get about 7 to 8 bars out of that,” Shahid says of each block. “In the future, I could get more molds and then get a soap cutter to get even more accurate with the cuts. But I like the whole rustic feel of it, as opposed to making a perfectly shaped bar.”

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Shahid has been at it for the better part of the year, starting in the early months of the pandemic, when she was temporarily furloughed from Ricky D’s Rib Shack, where she cooks. “I’d always had an interest in making my own lotions and things like that. So I just decided to go with something more practical. Something we use all the time, and something I could commit to and something I could craft.” She did her research online but really developed her expertise in the kitchen, using a chef’s understanding of temperature and fusion to perfect her soap.

“I create a double boiler situation,” Shahid explains. “I have water in the pan and then a heat-safe bowl inside it. Where the water is kind of steaming but not boiling.” The right temperature—a memory of how far to turn the burner knob, what the water around the bowl should look like when it’s giving off the desired heat—is as important as the right ingredients. Too hot and the interior bowl burns the soap. Too low and the elements solidify before they’re fully mixed.

Developing each mixture—Citrus Lavender, Rosey Honey Oatmeal, Charcoal Clarifying—was also for Shahid a nearly culinary mission, her nose brought to bear over a simmering stew. “I try to use the most natural ingredients possible… The whole thing is more the homemade factor and the natural factor behind it and the aromatherapy aspect. I use a lot of eucalyptus oils, lavender oils, that have pretty good and soothing smells, and they work well for the skin as well—very calming to the body and not too harsh, chemical-wise.” The mixing itself was a matter of science, adding and subtracting oils by the fluid ounce to achieve, say, a balance between their use as a skin treatment and a fragrance. The optimal amount of moisturizer might produce little or no perfume. She could then add essential oils to give the soap its smell, as long as they didn’t clash with the fragrance already built into the base. But then some kinds or combinations of oil could interfere with the bar’s ability to lather. Lather alone is enough to keep a soapmaker up at night.

Shahid remembers beta-testing her first batch. “It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t that great. It didn’t have a really good lather to it. And I didn’t care for the texture of it either. It was kind of super dry. I had to definitely test out a couple batches and incorporate different oils. So I started adding vitamin E oils and incorporated some cocoa butter in there.” By her estimation, she had achieved marketability—a soap that looked, smelled and otherwise behaved like good soap—after five batches. “I don’t like doing anything I can’t stand behind,” she says. “I wouldn’t put it out if I didn’t take joy to it myself.” She has since sold close to 100 bars—via her Facebook page but also at events where she was able to set up a table.

If you place a premium on natural ingredients, the best thing about soapmaking is how unmistakable those ingredients can be. The rose petals and lavender buds Shahid uses are actually visible. Appropriately, she masts her Facebook page with a logo underscored in leaves, vines, and red berries.

She wasn’t necessarily surrounded by these things growing up here, in a medium-sized city, but she used to bicycle the Farmington Canal trail as far as its confluence with Sleeping Giant, the rectilinear surroundings of Dixwell and lower Hamden giving way to rock shapes formed by retreating glaciers. “It’s a good mental clearer when you just want to submerge yourself in nature, unplug for a bit and just listen to some music. It felt very freeing riding up there. Kind of semi-isolated. You’ll see people passing by on their bikes, but it’s not like a middle of the city situation.”

Soap could be made to transfer that sensation to the bathtub. But the natural elements in it could be highly practical too. Shahid’s most popular soap is based in charcoal, which she has found to be ideal for acne-prone skin. “The charcoal is used for clarifying the skin of impurities,” Shahid explains. “It’s very useful for that, for toning the skin, as far as discoloration.” Her charcoal soap doubles as an exfoliant, with one of its sides coated in walnut powder for scraping away dead skin. “I didn’t want to use a microplastic. A lot of exfoliate products use that. They’re not good for the environment. They don’t break down. We already got the sea turtles dealing with a lot of stuff as is.” The walnut powder also gave the soap what she thought of as the right degree of abrasion, less like sand than bark.

That one side of her soap could be a dedicated exfoliant was perhaps her biggest eureka moment, coming as it did with the realization that the bar mold could be used for more than simple shaping. “At the bottom of the mold,” Shahid explains, “I would put the exfoliate down… pour that in the bottom and spread it out as equally as possible so when I add the hot soap mixture on top of it, it will solidify at the bottom and settle down there.” This is also one way she adds color to the soap—for example, coating the bottom of the mold with pigmented mica powder to give her charcoal soap its shimmering gold stamp.

It’s a case of form following function, then competing for supremacy with it. The dilemma for her customers is the knowledge that the solid, artistic object in their hand is also going to dissolve there.

SAFfyre’s Herbal Butters
(203) 676-5297 | saffiyahshahid@gmail.com

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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