Thursday, 21 February 2013

clog amnesty and the last clogmakers

Clogmaking is in the press again even making the Radio 4 Today program this morning. The story as reported goes like this, there is a resurgence of interest in Welsh clog dancing but not enough clogs. There is only one clogmaker left in Wales and the craft may die out, there is even a clog amnesty to get people to hand in their old clogs. One newspaper is reporting that this amnesty is somehow going to fund an apprentice clogmaker though the official amnesty page makes no mention of that, and it is difficult to see how it would generate the sort of funds needed.

The true story as is often the case is much more interesting and much deeper. There are in fact quite a few folk making clogs but most use machine cut clog soles sawn on a bandsaw. We should point out here that English and Welsh clogs have always been a wooden sole with a leather upper unlike the French, Spanish or Dutch clogs and sabbots which are all wood, they are also far more comfortable. The most difficult bit of this traditional craft and the bit that people lay claim to being "the last of" is cutting the clog sole with long handles clog knives. You use a set of three knives, the blocker, for most of the shaping, the hollower, to hollow where your foot sits and the gripper, to cut the groove the leather upper gets nailed into.

For many years the only person in the UK who was making all his clogs in this traditional way was Jeremy Atkinson  who we have written about before here  Jeremy spent 25 years researching the craft working with the last retired clogmakers in Wales, visiting working clogmakers in Spain he even wrote the book on clogmaking back in 1984 .
Here he is in the workshop

More recently one of the clogmakers who uses bandsawn soles Trefor Owen has also started demonstrating some cutting with knives and gaining a lot of press as "the last full time clogmaker in Wales"
Here he is

Journalists love to tell the story of the last craftsman on the verge of dying out, it is at the same time compelling and frustrating. It is frustrating because it is a self fulfilling prophecy. So long as there is big national publicity to be gained from being the last one about to die out there is very little incentive to train someone else to work as competition. I know this all too well having taught many people to turn wooden bowls on a pole lathe journalists desperately want to print that I am "the last working pole lathe turner". Occasionally I will tell them that I am still "the last person earning the majority of my income from making bowls on a pole lathe" but surely the fact that there were no pole lathe bowl turners 25 years ago and now there are probably 50 that can do it in the UK and others I have taught in Japan, Sweden the USA and across Europe is a far more interesting story? Apparently not what sells papers and Radio is the last of the line story. How then do we encourage people to take on an apprentice?

In 2005 Jeremy Atkinson did actually train a clogmaker Geraint Parfitt at St Fagans the Welsh National folk museum at Cardiff where he is still working today. This film shows some of the that process.

Through the Heritage Crafts Association we are working hard to adress the current issue of lack of entry routes to the traditional crafts. Getting journalists interested in the current upsurge in interest rather than the last of the line is key. What we are experiencing is not the end it is the beginning, a little like the upsurge in interest in rare breeds, locally sourced and organic food over the last 20 years, people want to buy these things and young people want to find fulfilling work there is a rosy future ahead.


  1. I don't make many dance clogs but the preferred choice for many is Phil Howard, who makes a very nice clog, with his own machined soles. The teams often use Walkelys who sell soles and make their own complete pairs. If you go there and find a pair that fits, well and good. There are so many part truths in the story that Trefor weaves that it ceases to be a complete picture of the real world situation
    He isn't any different from a number of clogmakers who make or buy machined soles. There's nothing different in his work. Machined sole, 20th century upper designs, thin spray painted leather and soles derived in design and function from the Walkelys mass produced soles he used to buy in.

  2. Hang on...not all English clogs were leather uppers. In Lancashire all-wooden clogs were made too. There was a feature on North West news sometime in the 1990s where a clogmaker made a pair of all-wood for an Asian man with oversized feet who couldn't find shoes to fit. My grandad had two pairs of clogs from the pit as well, one with leather uppers, one all-wood.