Feature: The ancient art of thatching

Article by Jeff S. Barganier
Reed grows abundantly at the edge of a new subdivision of thatched houses, but for economic reasons most of it is now imported from China and Turkey. (Photo: Jeff S. Barganier)

Reed grows abundantly at the edge of a new subdivision of thatched houses,
but for economic reasons most of it is now imported from China and Turkey. (Photo: Jeff S. Barganier)

On a recent trip to Holland my fascination with both contemporary technology and architectural antiques was stimulated by the art of roof thatching in a land of modern marvels.

In a population of about 16.5 million people, Wim van der Ende is one of scarcely 300 ‘roof thatchers’ in The Netherlands. Napoleon mandated that all people adopt a last name – a family name (see page 30 ed.). Wim’s ancestors lived at the end of the road. So they called themselves the people from the end: the Van der Endes.

Wim – pronounced Vim in Dutch, which translates to Bill in English – preserves a traditional industry that, a century ago, served as the sole source of income for some of his country’s present-day quaint tourist towns. When I met him during my stay in Holland, he invited me to come back and try my hand at the thousands-of-years-old craft. In early May of the following year, I returned and lived under Wim’s thatched roof with his gracious and adorable family.

Direct from Atlanta’s Hartsfield, I landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, rented a little five-speed Fiat and drove along well marked roads toward Gouda, a 45-minute drive south. I couldn’t resist a slight detour toward the coast where I visited the famous Keukenhof tulip gardens in full bloom. Just a few miles from the gardens, I spent my first night in Leiden, home-in-exile to English Separatists who became the American Pilgrim Fathers. They lived and worked there for twelve years before boarding the Speedwell and, later, the Mayflower for their famous 1620 voyage to settle Plymouth Colony.

This land of shimmering canals and dancing windmills is charmingly seductive in springtime. Yellow wildflowers border excellent highways that cross lush green fields with grazing sheep and black and white cows. Seemingly everywhere are giant, modern windmills, evocative of children somersaulting over the horizon, while blue and yellow commuter trains zip along on 15-minute schedules. The Dutch are a good-humored, friendly and hospitable people who eagerly offer assistance to strangers, and almost everyone speaks English.

A natural product

A third generation master, Wim already thatched roofs as a boy with his father. At one point six Van der Endes worked together: Wim, his dad, his grandfather, a brother and two uncles. “My father used to haul local riet (reed) by bicycle,” Wim explained. “And before him, my grandfather bought from the farmers who took the reeds to him from the harvest fields by boat. In the village of Noorden, harvesting riet used to be the only source of income. Now it’s largely tourism.”

A typical day begins at the Prosman Riet Company in Gouda where Wim picks up a bundle of reed in his truck. Although this common water reed grows naturally in the low marsh lands of The Netherlands – half the country is below sea level – the cost to harvest it is prohibitive. So Wim’s reed comes from countries such as China and Turkey. Consequently, as much as 70 percent of the 300 Euro price of a bundle (enough to thatch about 30 feet of roof) is shipping! Arjan Prosman, one of six reed wholesalers in The Netherlands, imports and distributes about $11 million worth of product each year. According to Arjan, roof thatching is an indigenous, well-organized industry dominated by the Dutch.

When asked about the viability and future of roof thatching, Arjan forecast a 10-year demand rising at about 10 percent per year. “It’s a natural product, and nature itself is the enemy. But there are many sources for lots of stock. The thatched roof has become the Mercedes of roofs. It’s a status symbol,” said Arjan, whose company roofed the U.S. home of Julio Iglesias, and has been involved in projects at Disney World in Florida. When I explained that there is only one thatched roof that I was familiar with in Alabama, at Montgomery’s Shakespeare Festival, Arjan immediately told me the name of the thatcher who did the job. Properly installed, a thatched roof has a 45 year life and may even increase the value of the property. Fire-retardant roofing boards, chemical sprays and other fire protection systems have made the flammable marsh grass a thoroughly modern building material.

 The craft of his ancestors

While Dutch engineering ingenuity has turned his homeland into a modern marvel, Wim finds contentment in ancient ways. Except for metal scaffolding and a single battery-powered screwdriver, Wim’s methods are unchanged by time. Even Wim is a study in contrasts. With his lovely wife Marga, he seems to relish the challenge of raising five children in modern Europe while practicing the craft of his ancestors. Comfortably conversant in philosophy and politics, he also occasionally plays the organ at Gouda’s Saint John’s Church, the longest cross-shaped church in The Netherlands, dating back to 1530.

We drove through the rustic countryside north of Gouda to the 17th century home of Roelof Brettschneider. Before commencing work, Roelof insisted we join him for tea. Over a cup of hot tea and cookies, Roelof explained that a thatched roof was really his only option. His home’s foundation was built upon mere ground, unsupported by the roughly 30-foot poles typically pounded into the wet Dutch soil. Roofing material such as slate or asphalt shingles would require additional beams for support, and the combined weight could actually cause the home to sink!

After tea, we lined up small, light bundles of reed on the roof and Wim mounted his dekstoel. This sled-like device sits directly on the ten-inch-thick mat of reed and features knife-like attachments that grip the roof through and below the reed. The dekstoel – which is literally a ‘deck stool’ – allowed Wim to perch on the roof while placing and spreading the material. Wim then placed a long steel rod across a section of reed and proceeded to fasten it tightly to the fire board beneath, using screws and wire. In the past, thatchers used specialized tools to thread vines in and out of the reed. Wim demonstrated this technique as well. Finally, a tool called a klopper is used to trim and shape the reed into a neat, amber-colored canvas of roof. Properly installed, water should not penetrate the reed by more than one inch.

When in 1620 our Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock, the first order of business was to get a roof over their heads. As told by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book, Mayflower: “…the building’s thatched roof…was made of cattails and reeds from the nearby marsh.” Perhaps during their long sojourn in The Netherlands before leaving for America, the English learned a trick or two from their Dutch hosts. I certainly did!

Related links

Short URL: http://www.mokeham.com/dutchthemag/?p=20030

Posted by on Aug 16 2013. Filed under Arts, Society, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply