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Andrew Liddle
Guest Writer
1:00 AM 6th April 2024
arts

Scarborough Calling – Part One

The Swedish Clogmaker
Andrew Liddle visits Björn Clogs in Scarborough to meet Catherine Farnaby and see hand production of an increasingly popular footwear

Catherine Farnaby
Catherine Farnaby
Handmade Swedish-style clogs are incredibly comfortable, suitable for all ages and come in a variety of appealing styles and colours. What’s more they have an orthopaedic function, helping to improve the posture. For a variety of compelling reasons they are becoming increasingly fashionable. A brief look online reveals the huge demand for those mass produced in the country from which they take their name. Amazon is advertising the latest ‘hot trends’.

There is, however, one place in this country where you can directly buy them actually handmade and that is at Björn Clogs, the shop in Scarborough, where they are lovingly hand-crafted at a rate of about 25 a week.

The clogmaker and co-owner, Catherine Farnaby, began with the firm 42 years ago, straight out of school, on a YTS scheme. She served her apprenticeship under the watchful eye of the founder, Björn Roswald, whom she describes as like a second father to her. This was shortly after he’d expanded from his small shop near the railway station to the current grander premises on Queen Street.

All photos: Catherine Farnaby,
All photos: Catherine Farnaby,
After learning the craft, she took on other roles in the business and eventually became an equal partner. These days she runs it with the help of her mother, Anne, occasionally assisted by sister, Suzie, and father, Henry. ‘It’s a family-run business selling all kinds of footwear,’ she tells me, ‘and we all pull together – but I still make all the clogs.’

Björn visits weekly but these days he is a relatively silent partner.

On cheerful display in the shop are a full range of traditional clogs for ladies, men and children in everyday colours such as black, brown and navy and in more flamboyant hues. The sandals-style clogs come in gold, silver, red, plain and patterned.

In addition, floor to ceiling in the stockroom, there are well-known brands such as FitFlop, Dr Martens, Kickers and Birkenstock for sale.

‘We’ve got Orthopaedic clogs, Karin ladies’ basic clogs, Gustau men’s basic clogs,’ Catherine says, breathlessly, casting an eye round the shelves, ‘Chris Junior children’s basic clogs with a back strap and wide range of fashion colour clogs.’ She smiles. ‘And they’re all hand-crafted downstairs.’

It’s typical of their homely approach that their own styles are named after family members and friends. We go down into ‘the dungeon’ to look at her compact workshop, an amazing assemblage of equipment, machines, shaping tools, sheers, buckles, studs - and the warm redolence of leather.

In the middle piled high are the hides, some plain, others with hair, bought from J. Wood of Steeton, near Keighley, many of them from Yorkshire cattle. ‘We used to hang them on the walls,’ she remembers, ‘all bright and colourful, but to save space we now roll them.’

Catherine speaks of her equipment with loving pride. Her staple gun is her ‘trusted friend’, irreplaceable and much repaired over the years. ‘You can’t get them like this anymore,’ she says, caressing the shiny silver surface. The leather is softened by nothing more high tech than the steam from an old-fashioned kettle whose handle melted off years ago.

She positions one of the rubberised soles, made from lightweight alder wood imported from Sweden, on the workbench and shows me the six or seven distinct processes that will turn it into a prized item of footwear that for a very reasonable price will far outlast other types of commercially-produced shoes and boots. This is a plain one but other soles come in darker shades, hand painted.

Catherine Farnaby,
Catherine Farnaby,
Most of the equipment is powered by her ‘chugger’, a compressed air machine. There’s her trusty old ‘clicker’ which cuts and shapes a piece of leather, by pressing it onto heavy-duty razor-sharp metal templates. Leather and sole are stitched painstakingly together on an old-fashioned Adler sewing machine, before some ‘toepuff’, a lacquer, is added to strengthen the material, now ready to move to the stapling stage. In some cases, rustproof galvanised studs will be hammered in.

The next stage involves softening by steam before it’s the turn of the lasting machine to urge foot-shaped lasts into the pliant leather. What emerges is the finished product, destined for the airing cupboard to dry overnight. Last of all she adds their own brand name to the sole, in an impressive black and gold design.

‘By getting up very early I can produce 60 pairs a week but on average it’s 25,’ Catherine tells me while deftly shaping a piece of red leather. ‘Everybody loves a pair of red clogs! You can’t rush any aspect of it from start to finish, each pair takes two days in production.’

Her work can never be churned out like something on a conveyor belt because each pair is different, often crafted to individual specifications with different fittings and heights of heels. Some have straps at the back; others are open-heeled. They come in many different styles.

She does supply wholesalers who put their own brand name and mark-up on her clogs but most of what she produces is sold either in the shop or online. ‘In addition to our local regular customers who come from all over, including Scotland, we sell all around the world, to America, China, Germany, Israel.’ She chuckles and I sense a joke is coming. ‘We even have customers in Sweden which is a bit like selling ice-cubes to Eskimos.’

It’s important to be aware that Björn clogs are not to be confused with traditional English clogs - ‘clog boots’ - the black metalled studded type once the staple wear of factory workers. ‘They were heavy and for industrial use – ours are light on the feet, ideal for work and relaxation, gardening, walking, lounging around – and as a fashion statement!’

I try on a pair and feel like I’m walking on air. They are ideal as I set off on my travels around Scarborough, writing what I hope will be a series on local people, places and institutions.

Swedish Clogs, by definition, are made in part or completely from wood. They were around in their country of origin in the Middle Ages, but it was in the1700s that they became standard working wear because wood, cheap and plentiful, could be easily carved and shaped. By the twentieth century they had begun to die out in Sweden but were brought back to life after the War by renewed interest in folk dances and traditions.

Suddenly in the 1970s, clogs became very trendy among the young generation, a symbol of rebellion, perhaps, and a desire to return to nature and simplicity. The Swedish pop group ABBA rarely left their rustic footwear at home and the fashion spread throughout Europe. It still flares up regularly as Catherine observes: ‘I’ve noticed over the years sudden surges in popularity and then a levelling off.’

At the moment they are on the rise and making regular appearances on the catwalk. Comfortable and practical as they are, they perhaps still carry a certain environmental symbolism as a sustainable option employing traditional processes, even if most of them are factory produced.

Björn Clogs, founded 46 years ago, still handmade and bespoke, thrived during Covid. ‘Yes, when one door closed another opened,’ Catherine says, brightly, ‘when the shop had to close for a time, we found ourselves getting more orders online and this has gone from strength to strength.’
Whether you’re looking for hospital anti-static safety clogs or the latest designer range of Scandinavian chic, the shop at 6 Queen Street is the place to go.

‘We are happy as we are,’ she says, ‘not wanting to expand beyond our capacity but to maintain our quality and our unique position in the market as the only maker of handcrafted Swedish-style clogs in the country.’

The second part of Andrew Liddle's Scarborough Calling: The Scarborough Chocolatier will appear on the 13 April