As stereotypical as windmills and tulips, Dutch wooden clogs aren’t just a modern-day tourist souvenir. They’re still worn by thousands of farmers and factory workers.
In use for at least 800 years in more or less its modern-day shape, the clog, though shunned as outmoded by city folk, makes up an enduring part of rural life in the Netherlands.
“Some 350,000 pairs of working clogs are manufactured in the Netherlands every year,” said Paul Nijhuis, owner of the Nijhuis clog factory in Beltrum. This small eastern town claims to produce 90 percent of the world’s “klompen” from poplar and willow trees.
“I go through about three pairs a year,” said 77-year-old pig farmer Theo Startelder, spotted riding his bicycle on streets of Beltrum in a bulky pair of well-worn, unpainted clogs.
“I work in them and I relax in them. When they are worn out, I throw them into the fireplace.” A pair of workers’ clogs sells for about €25.
Francis Adriaanse, 44, entered the factory shop carrying a massive pair of weather-beaten clogs held together with ducktape. She wanted a new pair of the same size for her son’s 18th birthday.
“He wears them around the house. He is lazy, he doesn’t like laces,” she told AFP.
Many children still wear clogs, she added. Once they grow out of a pair, it is common practice to hammer the tiny shoes to an outside wall as plant holders.
“Clogs are very versatile,” she said with a smile. “Young people also drink beer out of them.”
Clogs, mentioned in age-old proverbs, form an intrinsic part of the culture of the Dutch who are sometimes derisively referred to by outsiders as “cloggies”.
The last few clog makers
One of the world’s oldest specimens, dated to 1270, was dug up by archaeologists in Rotterdam in 1990.
Nijhuis, who has been in the clog business since taking over his father’s company in 1975, said people made their own until factories started springing up over the country in the 1850s.
By the mid-20th century, nearly every town had its own clog maker. Thousands of small factories produced a record nine million pairs in 1950, when the population numbered 10 million.
“Each clog maker painted a different pattern on theirs. You could tell where a person came from by looking at his clogs.”
Today, about 10 clog makers remain in the Netherlands. There’s also one in Spain, and a tiny number in France, Germany and Belgium. Nijhuis says he wore no other shoes until the age of eight.
Describing clog making as his life’s work, Nijhuis proudly showed off his factory and the machinery that he designed himself.
2,000 pairs each day
From 6,000 trees a year, some 120 workers make 2,000 pairs of clogs every day.
The trees are sliced into disks which are in turn sawed into pieces large enough for one clog each. One machine fashions the outside shape, another hollows out the clog.
Some have round noses while others have a sharp point — called fisherman’s clogs as they were traditionally used to help hook fishing nets onto boats.
The clogs are dried for a week before being sanded.
A quarter are left raw, the rest are painted by hand mostly for the souvenir market, with images of impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, cheese, football club logos, tulips or marijuana leaves among dozens of Dutch themes.
Clogs for tourists in the Netherlands
About six million souvenir clogs are produced in the Netherlands annually. They range from key holders and money boxes to life-sized, wearable ones.
“The clog will never disappear, even if it survives just for the tourist market,” said Nijhuis.
Extolling the virtues of the clog, he explained that the wood absorbs sweat and isolates the foot from cold in winter and heat in summer.
“With steel-nosed safety shoes, if you drop a block of wood on the bridge of your foot, you will have a very bruised foot,” said 34-year-old Jeffry Voortman, a factory worker who swears by clogs.
“The clog protects your entire foot.”
Added Nijhuis: “You can drive over a clogged foot with a car — I’ve done it myself.”
Researcher Wilbert van den Eijnde co-headed a study in 1997 that found that most makes of wooden clogs met Dutch and European standards for protective shoes. “They have been certified as such since 1999,” he told AFP.