Walking roughshod over the shoe
Walkley's Mill has put clogs back on the map, reports Mark Handscomb
At Walkley's Mill near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, Nelson Rush makes clogs much as they did 140 years ago, when the company first started production. He been nailing them together for more than 50 years, crouched on his stool, a clog clamped firmly between his knees. "The most popular clog is the Sunday clog, with all the eyelets down the side and fancy pattern on the front and overlapping tongues."
The 12 clog-makers and their apprentices work seven days a week to turn out 20,000 pairs a year. But when Mark Clyndes bought the five-story complex in 1986, staff such as Nelson Rush, were coming to the end of their 90-day redundancy notices and closure seemed imminent.
Mr Clyndes has realised the tourist potential of the factory in the picturesque Pennine town and increased orders from abroad to put the factory back on its feet. But his proudest moment was when he started exporting his clogs to the Dutch.
Now the same style of wooden-soled boot with brass-tipped toes that factory workers wore in the local textile mills is rapidly turning into a fashion accessory. For teenagers the clog now has the same cult status as Dr Marten's famous airsole boot. Mr Clyndes says this classic alternative shoe of the 1980s has become too mainstream to please elitists. "The sort of people who used to wear Dr Marten's as an alternative shoe are now more likely to wear clogs."
Thanks in part to popular bands such as New Model Army, a different tribe \of wearers has emerged with its own distinctive youth sub-culture. Black leather jackets, New Model Army T-shirts and unwashed hair complete the young c1og-wearer's style. Like Levi's jeans, which were originally produced as American workwear, clogs score high in terms of street cred. because they were worn in northern factories.
Glenys Sadler, at the Leeds-based alternative clothing shop B.A.D., sells increasing quantities to the 16-25 age group who are dedicated to the clog's no-nonsense, straightforward image. "Customers like the fact that they look good and never wear out," she says. "The waxy clog, with a shiny finish on the leather, and copper or steel toe-caps, is our best-selling line."
They are very different from the Scandinavian open-backed clogs popular with Kaftan-wearing hippies in the mid-1970s. They come as a lace-up shoe or a high-backed boot. There are special dancing clogs - like those worn by the prancing satyrs in the National Theatre's recent production of Trackers by Tony Harrison which are the traditional wear of northern Morris-men and clog-dancers.
They come in all the colours of the rainbow and some people have a different pair for every day of the week, while others who come to watch Nelson work ask him to modify existing boots and shoes.
"People spend £70 on a brand new pair of boots, come in here, and ask us to put a clog sole on them," he says. A tailor-made pair of clogs does not cost a fortune, Prices start at about £30 and the design can be personalised to suit individual tastes.
Many people have memories of grandparents wearing clogs and believe they are better for the feet than ordinary shoes. "People buy clogs because they see them as being good and wholesome," says Mr Clyndes. "They're made out of natural materials like wood and leather; they're handmade and fit that desire for a quality product.
"Unlike synthetic fabrics and plastics, they allow feet to breathe and give plenty of support so that feet do not become tired wearing them all day," he explains.
The curved wooden soles, covered in thick rubber or shod with metal runners, traditionally kept wearers' feet above the permanently damp floors in mills where the cotton had to he kept pliable.
Supposedly a hallmark of the nineteenth-century Pennine mill town, the typical clog wearer was more likely to live in London than in Leeds. Mr Clyndes says: "More clogs were worn down south than in the northern industrial towns.
Our records show that the majority of c1og-wearers worked in London's fish docks or in the fruit markets and the coal mines in Kent."
Beech wood was used to manufacture the wooden soles and demand was so great that timber had to be purchased by the acre, instead of the traditional cubic foot. Over a million pairs of clogs a year were made until the 1950s.
Strong regional styles developed, and in nearby Colne, Lancashire, one family of clog-makers was crafty enough to put a very strong curve on its wooden clog sole. Children who grew up wearing them were unable to bear wearing any other form of clog because their feet grew to match the shape, guaranteeing the c1og-maker a lifelong customer.
The client list at Walkley's Mill today reads like the top 100 blue-chip companies. Fireproof and armoured clogs continue to he worn in heavy industry as a durable protective boot and are now being exported to Saudi Arabia. Mr Clyndes has recently had enquiries from both the Iranian and Iraqi petrochemical industries.
More than three quarters of a million visitors to the picturesque Pennine town file through the doors of the mill each year, and they buy more than £300,000 worth of clogs.
"Production is on the verge of a big upturn," says Mr Clyndes. "Our industrial markets are increasing because companies are looking for a form of footwear that last longer than a boot and is considerably cheaper. And our fashion clogs now sell to those who want a no-nonsense shoe.
"Three ship loads were dispatched to The Netherlands last year. Clogs are at their best in extremes of temperature or water and the all-wooden Dutch clog was clearly inferior to our own when used in wet fields, because it leaked. In November the Saudi Arabians took receipt of 300 pairs to try in their developing steel industry."
Other clients include Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet as well as dance companies in the north of England. Surgeons wear anti-static clogs in operating theatres to prevent electric shocks, while transcontinental lorry drivers seen at Dover docks seem to have a penchant for fluffy grey ones. It is this diversity that accounts for the clog's rising popularity. As Mr Clyndes explains, "If you went into a shoe shop on the high street and asked them if they would modify a pair of shoes you saw in the window, they'd laugh you out of the shop. Here in the clog mill, there are no limits on the style or shape of our clogs."
Unfortunately there are only a very small number of clog makers left from the many hundreds who traded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cloggers still trading include Trefor Owen, the Turtons (see picture), Jerry Atkinson, Walter Hurst, and Walkleys.
There are however many old and modern films and videos of clog makers and clog dancers, and these are listed here: Videos, Tapes & Books.
For information on Lancashire clog dancing see: Lancashire Clog Dancing