All garments bearing the John Smedley label are made in England by craftspeople who each have a unique understanding of the personalities of the machines they stand before. The whole process is staffed by some 300 highly skilled workers, each shifting between different stages of production: the Mentasti press yields clouds of steam as sweaters are flattened and shaped whilst a nearby radio plays the latest episode of a detective crime podcast. Rows of linking machines where sleeves connect to arm holes are covered in portraits of grandchildren grinning in school uniform. A Stoll 220 – a fully fashion collar machine – clicks rhythmically as it has done for more than five decades, its operator tapping their foot in sync with the sound.
Across the yard at Lea Mills, a boiler house generates steam which distributes the heat across the site via a network of thick steel tubes. When the wool arrives it is stored in a humidified room that stays at 21 degrees to maintain a 65% moisture level. The River Derwent that thrums underneath the site creates natural humidity. The water used to wash the wool comes from three underground springs that rise from the millstone grit of the National Park, about 26 miles north. It is the reason for the unparalleled softness of John Smedley’s knits.
In the middle of the press room is a long sycamore table over 50 years old. Everything is straightened on this piece of wood after it has been washed and, at the end of every shift, rather like a butcher’s block, it is scrubbed down with cadenced sweeps. It has a smooth dip in its centre, caused by decades of care.
The archives at John Smedley Ltd, which includes some 10,000 knitted garments, tell a story not just of fashion but of the UK’s industrial heritage.
The company is a beacon of innovation and resilience.