The Last Mas­ter Clog-maker

ohn Greeves meets Jeremy Atkin­son, Eng­land’s only re­main­ing hand carver mak­ing be­spoke clogs.

This England - - The Last Master Clog-maker -

E AUSTEN in her book “Per­sua­sion” de­scribes a wet af­ter­noon in Bath. The air is filled with a ca­coph­ony of dash­ing car­riages, heavy rum­bling carts and drays, and the bawl­ing of news­men, muf­fin-men and milk­men.

But even above this clam­our rises the “cease­less clink of pat­tens”. Pat­tens were foot-clogs in the shape of an oval shoe iron that was riv­eted to a piece of wood, then strapped to the un­der­side of a shoe.

They pro­vided ideal pro­tec­tion for ladies wear­ing long white gowns and soft satin or kid slip­pers, as these cum­ber­some and un­wieldy foot-clogs served to raise the shoe out of the mud, dirt and fre­quent of the Re­gency streets.

In “Madame Bo­vary”, the French writer Flaubert refers to clogs be­ing worn by a wet nurse, and again as footwear for a poor peas­ant woman.

They were a com­mon sight at fish wharves, in coal mines and with mill girls who laboured long hours at the loom.

The ori­gin of all wooden-soled footwear is thought to have arisen from the Ro­man bath shoe, the pur­pose of which was to pro­tect the wearer’s feet from the hot tiled floors.

Many dif­fer­ent types de­vel­oped from this sin­gle form. On the con­ti­nent of Europe, the all-wooden clogs came into ex­is­tence. These were known as sabots, whereas in Bri­tain, clogs com­bined carved wooden soles with leather up­pers.

All clogs, whether Bri­tish or Con­ti­nen­tal, were es­sen­tially util­i­tar­ian forms of footwear, and up to fairly re­cent times had no ob­vi­ous fash­ion pre­ten­sions.

They did, how­ever, re­main a pop­u­lar form of footwear in Bri­tain from the be­gin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tury to the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth. They were ideal for cold, wet cli­mates and con­sid­er­ably cheaper and more durable than leather footwear.

In the 1900s, clogs cost per­haps a day or two’s wages, as op­posed to a strong leather pair of shoes which could cost more than a week’s wage. Even as late as WWII clogs were still thought of as es­sen­tial wear in Bri­tain, but their ap­peal dwin­dled with the pro­duc­tion of af­ford­able mass-pro­duced leather boots and the grow­ing stigma that equated clogs with poverty and class.

In 1901 there were more than 6,000 clog- and pat­ten-mak­ers in Eng­land and Wales. By 19 3, there were only 40 or so prac­tis­ing clog-mak­ing in Bri­tain.

Of these, per­haps only three or four were ca­pa­ble of cut­ting their own soles. Oth­ers bought in and al­tered fac­tory-pro­duced soles to their own spec­i­fi­ca­tion, while a num­ber were en­gaged solely in aspects of the leather­work known as last­ing.

Jeremy Atkin­son is the last re­main­ing hand carver in Eng­land mak­ing be­spoke clogs and still earn­ing a liv­ing en­tirely from his craft.

“If it wasn’t for Hyel Dafis, the craft would be long gone,” he tells me.

Just as one clog­ger learned from a man who had learned from an­other man and so on in an un­bro­ken line, so Jeremy was lucky to have Hyel to teach him.

Jeremy worked for free for 10 months be­fore he re­ceived six months’ “in-ser­vice train­ing with the crafts­men scheme”. This was only the start, and it took him a long time to “be­come half-de­cent”, as he de­scribes it.

In ad­di­tion, he had to learn leather­work and “last­ing” in the early days while hold­ing down a job.

He was em­ployed as a sur­veyor of old rights of way. Later he sur­veyed the river sys­tems for both the Wye and sk Foun­da­tion and the Sev­ern Rivers Trust. He used to do all this when the weather al­lowed, but oth­er­wise he con­tin­ued to make clogs.

When the fund­ing even­tu­ally ran out for his sur­vey­ing work, he de­cided to be­come a full-time clog-maker.

As a tra­di­tional mas­ter clog-maker of nearly 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence, Jeremy has worked to pre­serve the craft, but tells me, “It will prob­a­bly die when I’m gone.” The only way he con­sid­ers it vi­able is for it to be recog­nised for its or­thopaedic ap­pli­ca­tion.

Jeremy can copy an or­thotic, or foot sup­port, by carv­ing it di­rectly into the sole. He can ac­com­mo­date foot sizes and leg sizes when help­ing those with arthritic feet, for whom bend­ing the foot is a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for walk­ing.

But with­out re­fer­rals and the recog­ni­tion of fund­ing from the NHS to pa­tients, he sees this path­way as be­ing closed to many in­di­vid­u­als.

Not only does he fear for the fu­ture of the craft, but knows with his pass­ing years, a prob­lem­atic back, arthritic wrist and di­min­ish­ing eye­sight that it’s prob­a­bly too late to train any­one else. It takes a min­i­mum of ten years to be­come a mas­ter clog-maker.

“It used to be said they could tell a man’s vil­lage by the cast (curve of the toe) of his clogs,” Jeremy says.

Un­for­tu­nately, those days are long gone. He has taught a few peo­ple to use the knives, but a lot more is re quired to be­come a mas­ter clog-maker.

Jeremy not only hand carves the soles of his clogs, but cuts, stitches and fits the leather up­pers to each pair which is a skill in it­self.

His work­shop is sit­u­ated in the small mar­ket town of in­g­ton in Here­ford­shire. There are two ad­join­ing down­stairs rooms and both are like ar­ti­san caves, clut­tered with boxes, rolls of leather and bas­kets of “lasts”, as well as pre­car­i­ous piles of over-hang­ing cut soles, tools, jars, blocks of cut sycamore and alder, a wood-burner and even a har­ness-mak­ing sew­ing-ma­chine.

The main work­shop is dom­i­nated by a bench with a ring. Jeremy ma­nip­u­lates var­i­ous long-han­dled knives which are at­tached to this ringed bench. These he ma­noeu­vres with grace and con­cen­trated skill, work­ing by eye and feel to pro­duce two iden­ti­cal clog soles amid the wash of shav­ings and chip­pings.

The process of mak­ing clogs starts away from the work­shop in har­vest­ing wood.

Dif­fer­ent wood was favoured in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try. In Wales, alder, birch and sycamore was used. Scot­land favoured birch and Lin­colnshire wil­low, while Cheshire used wil­low and po­plar.

Alder was the most pop­u­lar wood used by clog­gers, es­pe­cially in York­shire. Be­ing both light and easy to cut when dry and green, it also has the added ad­van­tage of ab­sorb­ing sweat.

Mill girls would save the soles of old pairs of alder clogs be­cause they had moulded to the shape of their feet and were re­ally com­fort­able while stand­ing at the looms all day. They would ask the clog-maker to un­pick the tops and care­fully put on new ones.

Alder, how­ever, can be eaten uickly away by acid soils and left damp and muddy.

Beech is used in fac­to­ries mak­ing mass-pro­duced clogs to­day. It is good for ma­chin­ing, but suf­fers from be­ing heavy and hav­ing a shorter grain.

Machined soles tend to have a flat­ter pro­file, less spring and are not ideal for danc­ing or walk­ing com­pared to be­spoke clogs, which are designed to fit the foot and gait of the per­son.

Sycamore is light, hard and wears well. It’s also re­puted to have an­ti­sep­tic qual­i­ties and was used for mak­ing milk con­tain­ers at one time in the dairy busi­ness.

Ash was con­sid­ered by some to be the best for dance clogs, but doesn’t wear as well as sycamore. Wil­low is an­other wood with a good re­sis­tance to moist con­di­tions. It can also be tough and re­silient.

Jeremy has worked with most woods in his time. To­day he uses green sycamore which has been cut from an upright tree of 20 to 30 years.

“Sycamore is very high on the sta­bil­ity in­dex in re­la­tion to other hard woods. That means there is min­i­mal shrink­age. Fur­ther­more, it takes a nail well and doesn’t crack eas­ily,” he says.

Be­fore eremy starts work on a new pair of clogs, he makes care­ful mea­sure­ments, uses pho­to­graphs and cre­ates a tem­plate of the per­son’s foot.

This isn’t done by drawing around a per­son’s foot, but is cre­ated by us­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge gleaned over many years about the fit of a clog to a per­son’s foot.

Jeremy starts with a block of green sycamore which he splits down into two halves to make the wooden soles. Three dif­fer­ent long-han­dled knives are used in the process.

The first knife used is the blocker, or stock knife, which is used to cut the base and sides of the soles and roughly to shape the in­side.

This is called block­ing out. It’s a very awk­ward knife with an off­side han­dle, but can also be used to carve the un­der­side of the sole.

“The rea­son it’s so long is so I can get lever­age,” Jeremy says as he con­torts his body, hold­ing the wooden sole in one hand and the han­dle of the knife in the other.

All through this block­ing-out process Jeremy un­der­takes reg­u­lar checks in match­ing up the two soles to achieve a mir­ror im­age.

The next knife he at­taches to the ring on the bench is the hol­lower, which is used to hol­low out the sole for the foot to rest on.

“ ou never have a gap be­tween the hook and the blade,” he tells me.

As to the golden rules, Jeremy in­sists on keep­ing his knives very sharp and “al­ways cut­ting into the grain, oth­er­wise you’ll split it.”

He’s at one with the wood, sens­ing when it starts to grab and re­lax­ing his pres­sure in­stantly if he feels it likely to split. From time to time he sits a “last” on the cut sole.

“There has to be some cor­re­la­tion be­tween the sole and the last,” Jeremy says, “oth­er­wise the leather isn’t go­ing to sit right.

“I don’t fol­low it slav­ishly, and in some cases I de­lib­er­ately di­verge from what the last is telling me when I am cater­ing for some­thing like a high heel sup­port.”

The third knife is the grip­per or re­bate knife. This cuts a groove or a re­bate around the wooden soles of the clogs for the “up­per” (the leather part of the sole to sit in). Jeremy does all the leather­work him­self, which come in a range of styles.

The leather­work is all hand­crafted, of­ten hand-stitched with ual­ity work­man­ship which takes con­sid­er­able time and care.

On a good day, he can make one pair of clogs. The clogs are a work of ab­so­lute beauty and fit like Cin­derella’s slip­per. They also come with dura­bil­ity built in.

One of the last jobs Jeremy does is to fit a rub­ber sole and a heel cut from the same con­veyor belt rub­ber used in quar­ries, and adds metal toe tins to an item that could well out­last a per­son’s life­time.

Spe­cial tools are needed in the art of clog-mak­ing.

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