The Last Master Clog-maker
ohn Greeves meets Jeremy Atkinson, England’s only remaining hand carver making bespoke clogs.
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.