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John Smedley factory visit – one and a half million stitches

I recently had the privilege of spending the day at John Smedley Ltd in Derbyshire. I’ve long had an affinity with this revered English brand, the first piece of quality clothing I purchased, aged 14, was made by John Smedley. Cream Sea Island Cotton, long sleeves, three buttons on a woven placket and no collar. It was, in part at least, responsible for my burgeoning interest in men’s clothing, British manufacturing and the meaning of quality.

Almost three decades on I’ve worked with many manufacturers of materials and finished goods. I enjoy the environment, the buildings and machinery, camaraderie and tensions that exist within a factory. Converting raw materials into a finished end product, particularly at the quality-end of the spectrum, is complex and fascinating. But I’d never really been excited about a factory tour until now, nor been in the company of a guide as engaging and hospitable as John Mumby.

John joined the company in 1979 eventually becoming Head Colourist. Now retired he still returns to conduct factory tours and is lending his expertise to the task of documenting the 3,000-garment archive, the earliest pieces date from 1820. Apparently there is discussion around a permanent display or even a museum on the site.

John freely imparts his vast knowledge of production processes, company history and heritage. As we walk, there are three elements continually in evidence, a combination which may explain the company’s enduring success; Evidence of quality is apparent everywhere, as is a subtle but all-pervading feeling of reverence and heritage and tradition sit comfortably alongside technology and progress.

Quality. Quality is everywhere. Quality standards and the requirements to attain them are set at the highest level. There are numerous processes required to convert single yarn into fine knitwear, quality is a factor in all of these, in some cases quality is the sole reason for that process. To give some impression of the importance of quality, before any thought of dying or knitting, raw yarn is first humidity tested and each strand passed through an emulsion bath, a light coating improves the knitting process and final garment quality. In the large on-site laboratories a team of six continually test yarn, colour and knit quality and consistency to every conceivable level. This adherence to the highest quality standards continues throughout the numerous production and finishing processes, a highly skilled workforce being combined with state of the art technology.

Yet despite century-old methods and the most modern technology there is another factor John Mumby believes makes John Smedley knitwear unique. Three natural springs up on the hillside provide the mill’s water, this has a distinct softness and when imparted to yarn and garment during scouring and dying it’s this local water that creates the soft hand feel.

Reverence. Everyone I encountered during my visit had a very particular reverence for the company. Manufacturing continuously for 227 years, more than any other company in the country I believe, is an incredible feat. The company has seen world wars and economic upheaval. Credit for this longevity must go in part to the relationship between workforce and management, an obvious mutual respect exists. Visible pride is displayed by everyone for the company itself, the John Smedley brand, and the quality of product they all help to produce. This is apparent everywhere, from the family portraits in the boardroom to the newspaper clippings about the company taped to the machine tables. Famously, John Smedley remains a family run business, it feels that their notion of family extends to the entire workforce.

Tradition and technology. The company seamlessly melds it’s heritage and traditions with cutting-edge technology and progress. Despite being a global luxury brand the company is still based in the original 1783 factory building in rural Derbyshire, although this has been extended numerous times to accommodate expansion.

Inside, Monk machines made in Sutton-in-Ashfield in the 1960’s are in use alongside Japanese Shima Seiki machines. These Whole Garment machines work on four knitting-beds simultaneously producing an entire garment, front, back and sleeves, without human intervention in around 80 minutes. One garment, one and a half million stitches, 80 minutes.

Ironically the basic mechanical technology on which they’re built is 200 years old. Despite this complex computerised automation each garment still undergoes 36 hand-finishing processes before final completion.

John attributes the company’s recent success to investment in high quality German Stoll machines, and a decision to shift focus from underwear, which they specialised in until the 1950’s, to the knitwear they are famous for today.

As we come to the end of the tour the Merino wool long-johns we saw being knitted on the Whole Garment machines are being steam pressed, part of a 5,000-pair order destined for China we’re told. John tells me the Royal family have been wearing John Smedley underwear for years, yet the company has no Royal Warrant. This absence of formal recognition speaks of a quiet confidence, after 227 years the company is entitled to proceed at its own pace, hankering after plaudits isn’t really their style. They will look into the Royal Warrant process I’m told, ‘it may happen in a year or two’.