From Brighton to South London, Soho and Savile Row, all the friends we have met through LAW each have their own story to tell but all share a common attitude towards style. After all, boys will never be as pretty as girls all we can really do is dress well. One brand that I have found continually mentioned is John Smedley, a bell would sound each time I heard that name and now it rings louder than ever.
John Smedley is a 229-year-old iconic knitwear label, made in Britain. Peter Nightingale, the great uncle of Florence, built the original mill at Lea Mills, Derbyshire in 1784. Later that year John Smedley would become his associate and in 1818 he would buy the mill to call his own. In 1820 John Smedley Jnr would become his fathers apprentice and in 1825 he took over as chairman and managing director, where he remained for 50 years until he died in 1875. Since then the company has been passed down in safe hands through the family tree to the current Managing Director, Ian Maclean.
We sat in the boardroom at Lea Mills with Ian, as he pointed out the paintings of his relatives that adorn the walls. Due to the foresight of these men, who decided to come away from producing for other brands and build up their own, today the company is in good health and enjoys a broad distribution of product all over the world. They have fought off many challenges from competitors vying to buy the Smedley name as brands have fallen down the wayside as the vast majority of British textile manufacturing moved to the Far East. “We have witnessed the decline of the textile manufacturing and knitting industry in Britain over the last 20 plus years. Every year 1 or 2 of our compatriots disappears unfortunately and it’s quite a miracle that we are still here.” The company now has 100 or more family shareholders whose main objective is to see the continuity of the business over a long period of time and to pass it on to the next generation in better shape than it was received. Today John Smedley employs around 400 people from the local area.
To show us how things are done the John Smedley way, we were taken on a tour of the mill by the legend that is John Mumby. John’s a Yorkshire lad and grew up in what was once the heart of the British textile Industry. His dad was a mill manager at one of the weaving mills in Bradford and in 1958 he secured John an apprenticeship at a local spinning company. John worked there until 1971, when he left for Cheshire and a company who were making simulated fur fabrics for the fashionably conscious in the 70s. That factory closed in 1978 (factory’s closing is common theme) John was out of the textile industry for a few years until, “I was lucky enough to get a job here and I’ve worked here ever since.” John worked for 50 years in the textile industry, 28 going on 32 of those years for John Smedley. Nowadays when he’s not giving expert tours he can often be found helping the archivist Jane, to catalogue some 3000 garments that have recently returned from being frozen for preservation at Nottingham University. With garments dating from 1820 when the company first made its name by producing fine quality underwear, each day they open a new box not knowing what might turn up. What is clear is that right from the start the company was at the top of the range. It means a lot to John, he means a lot to Smedley and that means a lot to me.
John’s station was Quality Control, where at every stage of production a batch of samples is put through their paces to check they are fit for the Smedley shirt. Industrial washing machines test garments for shrinkage by treating them to 3-hour cycles at 50 degrees, equivalent to wearing, and washing the garment 27 times, and a cork lined bobble tester bumbles samples around with rubber to assess the degree of pull. “The quality control has to be there, because of what we do and the quality of the raw material. At the end of the day if guys are going into a shop and paying over £100 for that garment, it’s got to be right.”
It’s noisy in here, my trusty Olympus Dictaphone is held tight to catch John’s Yorkshire dialect through the old school mechanical clunk and busy knitting chatter. This is where all the trims for the garments are made; collars, cuffs, ribs and roll necks are all knitted here in the traditional way.
“These machines were actually made by Spol of Germany exclusively for John Smedley and delivered in 1955. So they’re 57 years old now. These were made especially for the John Smedley ‘Isis’. The 3-button short sleeve polo shirt and the long sleeve version, which is the ‘Amber’. You might look at this machine and think it don’t look anything special but designers over the years have come and gone and tried to copy the John Smedley shirt, but the reason they can’t is down to these machines.”
All of a sudden this 57-year-old warhorse of a machine didn’t half look something special. The 3-button polo shirt as fore mentioned by John, is perhaps the Jewell in all of Smedley’s crown. I mean there are a million polo shirts on the market, but this doesn’t need a laurel or a golden eagle to tell you what it is. The quality, as you would expect is second to none but before I’d ever had the pleasure of pulling one on, it was this collar that caught my eye. It’s slightly elongated than what you would expect of your archetypal polo but the tailored edge allows it to sit beautifully flat on the front.
Now we move right up to modern day technology and ditch the earplugs on the way. In 1993 the first Japanese made ‘Shima’ machines arrived at Lea Mills and brought with them a new era of knitting, “Stripes, diamonds, if the designers can design it these machines can knit it.” I’ve often been perplexed on how a garment can have no side seams, from now on I know, it’s a Shima that’s done that.
In the dressing department the gar-ments and trims are given the WOW FACTOR by a line out of big rugby shaped metallic washing machines that scour and soften the garments before they are gently lofted in the air by giant tumble dryers. Then they are sorted into sizes and pressed on old Hoffman Presses with apple wood sleeves or on the flash modern version that does the same job but with LASERS. “Someone checks it, and then someone checks it to make sure they’ve checked it right.”
Listening back to the Olympus I must have said ‘that’s amazing’ about 94 times. In the finishing room, there’s a gang of nimble fingered women linking the trims to the garments, stitching in buttonholes and sewing on mother of pearl buttons. “All is hand finished. Once you see the garment being made, coming off the knitting machine, to get it into that finished bag there’s 36 individual hand operations. Each piece of the garment is individually made. Which people might not appreciate paying £100, but they go away, knowing why it’s £100 because of the attention to detail, the quality.” We watch Jane hand cutting round templates like thin air, gliding through the fabric to avoid a jagged edge. “Jane’s been here about 39 years her husband John is in the knitting plant and his brother in law is actually a coach down at Derby County, he used to play for them.” The final stage is labeling the finished garment. In order with the rest of the process, one team carefully stitches in the care labels whilst the other stitch in the back neck label. Which could be John Smedley or for a customer as they also knit for Paul Smith, Margaret Howell, Harrods and Prada.
The final label says, ‘Made in England’.
Before we went to get ourselves an Amber polo each from the Mill Shop, I asked John what Smedley means to him. I saw how much it meant to him. I’ll leave you with his final words on my tape.