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Two pairs of clogs and some daffodils
Clogs by Simon Brock

Clog-making – and why we should cherish it

As the clog dancing calendar kicks off with Lancashire Wallopers’ Weekend of Step Clog Dance (10th-11th February), clog maker, Simon Brock, takes a look at this very British craft.

Have you read James Merryclough’s recent introduction to intangible cultural heritage? If not, go and read it now, and then come back.

Done? OK. You may have spotted that traditional crafts and artistic skills are included in the definition of intangible cultural heritage, with examples given from the US, Japan and Italy. While many traditional craft skills are somewhat generic, appearing in some recognisably similar form across whole continents, the way in which traditional crafts are interpreted and practised almost always reflects the local culture in some way.

Clog-making is just such a craft. To understand more, let’s go back to basics.

This Saturday, the majority of all the active custodians of a valuable piece of our intangible cultural heritage will be together in one small room in a Lancashire school. Let’s hope there’s no natural disaster.

Simon Brock, Clog Maker

What are clogs?

Ask lay people in Britain this and – unless they’re at least 80 years old – they’ll most likely describe something worn by a Dutch girl standing on the steps of a windmill. Ask most folkies and they will probably reference the dance footwear of step dancers and Morris dancers.

Both are correct (however sad it may be that most British people will think of the intangible cultural heritage of the Netherlands before their own). Clogs are simply shoes with a wooden sole, and this includes the large, clumpy overshoe of the Low Countries (well the Dutch word is ‘klompen’, so I don’t feel bad about describing them thus); the French ‘sabot’; the tripedal ‘albarca’ of Spain; and our native clogs, which are distinguished by a fairly thin wooden sole and a fully-enclosed shoe or boot upper.

Naturally, these regional differences lead to variety in the methods of working, the tools used in their manufacture and, crucially, the end uses to which the clogs can be put.

The most fascinating tools are undoubtedly the three traditional clog knives, which defy easy description and are quite unlike any tools used for anything else. Overall, the British clog has a very shoe-like design, and – with tweaks – can be made suitable for workwear, finely-controlled dance steps, or just doing the gardening in.

So who wears clogs?

My customers are a split of about 50:40:10, comprising step dancers, Morris dancers and what I term ‘civilians’ – that is, anyone who doesn’t want them for dancing. In some ways, this latter category is the most interesting, comprising farmers, the odd industrial worker, ‘Sunday best’ wearers, romantics who get married in them (like me), fellow craftspeople who appreciate them as objects, and older people who remember them fondly and want to recapture their childhood.

Some of Simon’s ‘civvy’ clogs

And the dancers?

Well-loved Morris clogs of Chinewrde Morris, as modeled by Ellie Gowers

Step dancers and (most) northwest Morris dancers wear clogs.

In its heyday around the turn of the 20th century, clog-making was largely an urban craft carried on in the industrial centres of Britain by more than 6,000 clog makers. Miners, mill workers, brewers, steelworkers, dockers, factory workers, fish packers… you get the idea: clogs were ubiquitous industrial footwear. Indeed, their association with hard work and poverty probably contributed to their decline in popularity as leather shoes became more affordable.

Vikki Lewis with Manny Grimsley at Sidmouth Folk Festival 2023

Sadly, there is little or no evidence to support the widely-held belief that Lancashire mill girls or Welsh slate miners tip-tapping rhythms on the floor then spilled onto the streets as the direct precursor of the stepping we see today. The origins of clog step dancing seem more likely to have emerged from Music Hall than the factory floor.

The clog wearing of Northwest Morris may have a more credible claim to have come straight from t’mill, given that Morris dancing clogs always have something on the bottom (traditionally irons; these days more often rubber soling), just like the industrial version, to protect the wood from wearing away too quickly and, even more importantly, to stop the wearer from slipping over.

Earlsdon Morris at Whittlesey Straw Bear 2020

Who makes clogs?

Not many of us! Those who move in the clog dancing world will probably know of me, Phil Howard, and Walkley’s factory at Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire (not Walkley the suburb of Sheffield where I, somewhat confusingly and by strange coincidence, live). They may also be aware of Jeremy Atkinson, who carves his soles entirely by hand but whose market is principally the ‘civilian’ wearers rather than dancers.

Names from the past like Trefor Owen, Rick Rybicki, Sandra Turton and Jane Mickleborough (and many others) are still familiar, and many of their clogs are still in regular use.

That’s the thing about clogs: they are fabulously sustainable. Iron or rubber soling can be replaced, and the leather uppers can be carefully removed for the wooden soles themselves to be replaced. I frequently re-wood clogs that are upwards of 40 years old: how’s that for value for money?!

Repaired and resoled clogs originally made by John the Fish in the late 1970s

Occasionally I hear rumours of other clog makers scattered around the country, and there are definitely some part-time makers and skilful enthusiastic amateurs out there. But we can safely assume that there are three full-time commercial makers in England making bespoke clogs from scratch, plus Walkley’s factory where things are done with more automation. And no, nobody outside the UK is making British clogs commercially.

How does someone become a clog maker?

For me, it was the ideal combination of existing woodworking skills (I trained as a furniture maker after school) and folk dancing (I’ve danced with several teams and am Dance Captain of Handsworth Sword Dancers, although somewhat paradoxically I’ve never danced in a team that wears clogs). I know of other clog makers who started out making a pair of clogs just for themselves, then for the rest of their morris team, and soon found they were in demand.

I was fortunate that clog maker Trefor Owen was very generous with his time and knowledge: over the course of six years we conducted a rather disjointed, but ultimately successful, ad hoc apprenticeship at distance. This concluded just as Trefor was winding down to retirement and I could pick up his customers!

It should cause just as much alarm as the possibility that the world’s last hankie factory is on the brink of collapse.

At the same time, I had rather a lot of fun travelling around the country visiting active and retired clog makers, and clog-related exhibitions in museums, gleaning whatever insight (and tools!) I could from each one. After some cajoling, Rick Rybicki sold me his lasts and patterns; and I acquired my clog knives serendipitously from an ex-pat Lancastrian who’d had them sitting idle in his garage in Bournemouth for 25 years.

It would be a fearsome learning curve to start the craft from scratch – although doable – and it does feel like the most natural progression into clog making is via one of its constituent parts, namely woodworking and leather working.

Clog making is endangered, then?

Critically. And it’s not just me saying that: the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts says so. Rachel Wilkinson will be discussing the Red List in more detail on Tradfolk soon, suffice it to say the HCA considers the viability of clog-making to be very precarious, chiefly because there are so few people with the necessary skills to carry it on.

In the UK, the term ‘heritage craft’ is often used, which perhaps suggests something that only exists in some fringe, re-enactment-type form. Of course, readers of Tradfolk will understand that neither ‘heritage’ nor ‘tradition’ means this, and that living traditions are all around us, vibrant and relevant, as long as we make the effort to keep them alive.

What’s to be done?

Eventually, a new generation of clog makers will have to emerge, otherwise the craft will die out. I’m not convinced that anyone has really thought about the implications of this for step and Morris dancing; it should cause just as much alarm as the possibility that the world’s last hankie factory is on the brink of collapse.

But for now, there are enough active clog makers to keep the craft just about viable. The most helpful things that everyone else can do are:

  • Support your local clog maker*
  • Be prepared to wait several months for them to be finished
  • Be prepared to pay whatever is asked. I realise, as someone who makes clogs for a living, you might expect me to say this. But as far as I can tell, every clog maker of recent times has tried to make clogs accessible by charging the very lowest price they could possibly get away with – sometimes to the detriment of their own business.

This Saturday I’ll be at Lancashire Wallopers’ Weekend of Clog Step Dance, which is always a cheerful affair. It’s my first selling event of the year – a welcome opportunity to sell stock I’ve built up over the winter, as well as a chance to meet up with friends and previous – hopefully satisfied! – customers.

Phil Howard will be there too. We should pause for a moment to consider that the majority of all the active custodians of a valuable piece of our intangible cultural heritage will be together in one small room in a Lancashire school. Let’s hope there’s no natural disaster.

Check out Simon’s Instagram for more wild clog creations, or peruse his wares and place an order over on his website: simonbrock.co.uk.

*Note that this may be several hundred miles away.