The sharp end: Sweet smell of success

Dave Waller joins Chorley, an old-fashioned soap factory that's cracked the global market.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Sharp End is sending me to Chorley, Lancashire, to spend a day making soap. Life behind bars, eh?

Droyt's HQ is a former yarn mill in what's now a residential street; there's just a simple sign and a blue wooden warehouse door revealing its presence. This isn't the trendy 'recontextualising' of space you find in east London. No fashionable irony here - just a dozen women in blue coats and white hats, sitting surrounded by old metal machinery, pulling the firm's trademark bars of transparent glycerine soap from wooden racks and polishing them lovingly with damp cloths. Banter bubbles up in a thick Lancastrian lather.

Director Alistair McCracken confirms it's a scene that hasn't changed much since the factory opened its doors in 1938. Or since even earlier, if you were to swap Chorley for Minsk. That's where the great-greatgreat uncle of fellow director Chris Effendowicz started the business in 1893, before fleeing in the wake of the Revolution to Berlin - which was abandoned in favour of Blighty to get away from the Nazis.

Alistair shows me around, starting in the back room, where a man with big arms stirs a thick red liquid bubbling in a vat, next to yesterday's handiwork: a one-ton block of soap that'll make 7,000 bars. Everywhere, there's soap. Racks house 120 kg blocks waiting to be cut and off-cuts waiting to be recycled. Then there's the lab upstairs - where small bottles of scent, made to Chris's family recipes, fill the shelves. The smell is sweet and intense, and sticks to the skin as you move.

Droyt is apparently the only company in the world still making soap this way, entirely by hand. 'To be honest, nobody would want to start a company like this, even abroad,' Alistair jokes. It is hugely labour intensive but, as with much of UK manufacturing, Droyt's best hope of competing with developing economies is to produce something its rivals can't - a product with a story. After struggling for a few years, the company has just taken on 12 staff, up to 25, in order to handle frothing demand from the newly wealthy Chinese middle classes, who like to keep clean in style. Droyt is clearly the Rolls-Royce (or Mulberry) of soap.

The stamping machine is getting on for a 100 years old and is currently marking the letters AA onto bars destined for that very same Chinese market. The woman working it rests her feet on a footplate, swinging the heavy mechanical stamper down for two good hits, in a rapid 'thu-dump' rhythm. Her mate sits next to her, arranging the stamped bars in trays: in, thu-dump, pass; in, thu-dump, pass. For thousands of bars.

I take my turn, pondering the weirdness of the global supply chain. And, although the low-tech ethos here is right up my alley, I can't imagine why a Chinese aspirant would shell out a few extra yuan for a scrub-down with my handiwork. Alistair tells me that 90% of their product used to go out under Droyt's own brand. Now 90% of it is made for others, such as Waitrose and Muji.

Next, I'm handed a damp towel and given a flotilla of bars to shine. It's hardly the most riveting work and the soap-polishers start on the minimum wage, but the mood is jolly and, as people point out several times during my day, a job's a job. Especially these days and especially here - Droyt is the only manufacturing business left in Chorley. Diane, the downstairs supervisor, is a veteran of 10 years. She tells me I'm doing ok, as she wipes off my fingerprints.

After the factory whistle - which signals both the arrival and passing of break time - I join Ian and Dave in the back, pouring out today's batch of soap. We send the hot, gloopy mixture of coconut oil, palm oil, castor oil and sugar from the vat into a chute, from which it's sieved into a giant empty container - where it will solidify overnight, take three days to cool and in 12 days be cut into bars. Dave's been doing this for 30 years. He can remember only two changes: they no longer mix their own caustic soda and they switched from beef fat to palm oil in the wake of BSE.

After splashing industrial alcohol across the top to prevent foaming, Dave pours in the perfume - rose. It has been refreshing to spend a day in another era. The only question is: what washes away the smell of soap?

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