With the intention of researching British clothing manufacture since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (yes I know, that small topic!), I decided to go to Derbyshire in England for a few days. Numerous conversations with my Gran and two booked train tickets later (one for me and one for Gran), I was fascinated, excited and already overwhelmed.
We went straight to the birth place of the two first water powered cotton spinning mills, Cromford Mill (1771)1 in Cromford, and Masson Mill (1783)2 just down the road in Matlock Bath. Both factories, now World Heritage sites, were pioneered by The Father of the Factory System3, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792). Arkwirght started out as an apprentice Barber and Wigmaker in Bolton, before developing a roller spinning machine in 1768.4 A year later he moved to Nottingham where he set up the first horse-powered spinning mill with partners.5 They were later pushed out of Nottingham by the 19th century, against machine labour and self-policing textile machine destroyers, the Luddites!6 Arkwright subsequently relocated to Derbyshire and is now recognised as the pioneer of the factory system and amongst other bits of industrialist genius, inventor of the waterframe.
The third mill in the area, opened thirteen yrs after Arkwright’s first, is the John Smedley Mill.7 Gran had grown up in the area so, with her help, I put things into perspective. I was surprised and interested to learn about this company, still in operation today almost 230 years on.
Henry was Hosiery Warehouse Manager at Smedley’s in the latter half of the 1800s. A position Gran and I thought reasonably prestigious. We arranged to meet with Smedley’s Archivist, Jane Middleton-Smith, with whom we soon learned of the regimented hierarchy of managers within the factory and it was most likely Henry was at the lower end of the pecking order in a managerial sense.
It was suggested online that Smedley’s are the longest running factory for clothing manufacture in the world. “Wow!” I thought. Jane was far more grounded, as a historian and archivist, she said she’d be quite nervous to state categorically yes, but she could say they are definitely one of the oldest, possibly the oldest continuous running clothing manufacturer in the world. Still, very impressive!
“Nightmare in Smedley Street”, she read to me and laughed. Reading from one of her favourite objects in the factory’s archive, a three-legged wooden stool covered in decades of carved graffiti, one of only a few now remaining from 100s.
Archivist, Jane Middleton-Smith, Source: Address Publications
Jane explained that to understand the specialised area of research into the hosiery knitwear scene since the 17th – 20th century is a big ask in such a short time, to date, a mere three years. While Gran and Jane swapped stories about missing links in the archive around World War 1, I watched the volunteer archivists, Margret, Ann and Sue, retired history teachers, sorting through the recently deep frozen garments.8 They said everyday they discover something new and exciting, at that time unwrapping a box of 1970s knitwear and a selection of 1912 undergarments.9
The finishes, the attention to detail on these garments was truly outstanding. I considered the quality of my own knitwear and it’s not good. Apart from the moth holes, usually when I wear something woollen I’m all ‘Here’s one I shrunk earlier!’ I pretend that I’m making a deliberate ¾ length sleeve, cropped body statement, when actually I’m making the best of another washing machine incident. I don’t buy clothes from shops very often either, but when I do at least one button has made a fast get-away, before I’ve gotten home. I’ve very foolishly bought clothes with threads unravelling, and let’s not limit this to knitwear, convincing myself I’ll neaten them up, but I never do. It’s not necessarily about cheap or second-hand goods either, I have friends who work for high-end fashion brands who tell me their companies’ jumpers can bobble, colours fade and threads undo, depending on the factory they were made in for that collection.
So, how had a company at the forefront of industrial innovation managed to sustain itself? And based on the quality of garments I’d seen prior to the trip at their Brook Street store in London, maintained the high standard of manufacture. We left Gran making notes for Jane and myself, whilst I received a detailed tour of the factory floor. Jane showed me how old and new manufacturing techniques sit along side each other. The original style, long-john pressing boards10 vs 21st century laser precision pressing machines. I met machinists operating one machine as part of a cycle of up to 36 hand processes, Source: Address Publications11, as well as machinists operating multiple machines, including machines that knit complete 3D garments with up to 16 different coloured yarns12.
I’d become more and more fascinated by Smedley’s ability to shift through time; two world wars, a depression and a recession, for starters, and still reinvent what are ultimately well made staples, surviving without compromise to the manufacture of the product and remaining in Briton too. I was shown examples of Smedley’s as leaders in fine knitwear hoisery, like their patented S Wrap, an underwear knitted wrap type of flap for women and children’s underwear, before we had the luxury of the sewn in gusset today.
Jane told me spinning finished at Smedley’s in about 2003. “That was part of the whole change of knitwear and hosiery industry to outsource, as a lot of UK company’s started outsourcing manufacturers abroad. There were redundancies but we tried to reemploy people wherever possible. We still employ around 400 people in the UK, 300 of which work in the manufacture sector of the company today.” I met a number of the machinists while I was there, quite an equal balance of men and women but it used to be that knitting was a man’s role in the earlier years. The level of skill I witnessed, really was first class. One lady was cutting away at speed; Jane said ‘She is fast isn’t she?’ referring to the employee also called Jane. “Jane once told me her scissors are an extension of her hand, she said she can tell when someone else has picked them up!”
It’s almost unheard of to have hung onto such skilled workers in this specialised field of manufacture, certainly on this scale in Briton. Collaborating with top fashion designers and designer brands, at least in part, must have enabled their survival. Collaborations with labels such as; Jeager, Agent Provocateur, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Comme des Garçons, Nicole Farhi, Margret Howell and Katherine Hamnett. When, presumably they were approached to produce garments based on their reputation for high standards as well as for their Britishness.
“Manufacture is starting to come back to the UK but we’re very proud of the fact, we can say ‘Made in Great Briton’ and we always have been. Obviously, not growing our own Marino Wool or Sea Island Cotton, but all of the processes are done here in Derbyshire and we’re very very proud of that. And I think there is definitely a mood in this country, and fashion, to see textile manufacture coming back.” Jane said Smedley’s produced garments for both world war efforts, before going on to tell me about the company during the depression in the 1920s-30s. Here is a photo and audio as she unwrapped from its archive box, a 1930s knitted swimsuit.Knitted Swimsuit, Source: Address Publications
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Audio: Archivist Jane Middleton-Smith
Jane gave good insight into the company’s founding ethos, with the first of four J Smedleys, who started the company with his associate Peter Nightingale, the Great Uncle of Florence Nightingale. “There are some brilliant characters” she said “We’re a family company and always have been. The Smedley family are still very much a part of the company today. John Smedley himself, the founder13, was massively eccentric with amazing energy and drive. But truly eccentric, he wore an old peaked cap” This type of flat cap was a labourers cap, even the nearby Derby train station master would have worn a top hat. The boss wearing one would have been a very ground level, working class thing to do. “He became very interested in hydro therapy14, in his later years, once he’d made the mill work and found a niche market if you like, in marino spinning and making underwear, the mill ticked over and he was able to indulge his interest and passion for hydro therapy and he was also a very religious man who’d entered into a very prolonged argument with the church of England. So he was a great eccentric in his own right.”
Since the early years they’ve gone from underwear to outerwear, keeping up with trends and lifestyle changes. At times, innovating techniques, and developing to fit with lifestyle changes and garment needs. I asked Jane, how they reinvent these wardrobe classics, keeping them looking fresh. “One of the things I’m very conscious of is that Smedley’s have insisted over the last 100 years and really since inception, on good quality and quality has been paramount in terms of raw materials and finished goods. As you could see when we went round looking at the manufacturing process, everybody strives for perfection and the garments sell at a high price, so we’re very conscious that they need to be the best. We’re very proud of that. We’re also very proud of the fact we produce iconic pieces, like the classic polo neck and classic sport shirts and I think those will always be part of the range. But I know the design team are constantly looking for ways to keep the garments fresh and in fashion. If you don’t do that, you don’t sell garments, you have to balance the two I think.” The volunteer archivists told me that the design team had recently redeveloped the company’s Jay bird emblem, inspired by some of the vintage styles recently found in the archive. And last year Umbro celebrated it’s collaboration with Smedley’s by relaunching garments from their own archives of 1948s British athletics wear, both Sea Island Cotton, the Field Sweater and Tangera Shirt15.
I felt pleased for Smedley’s that garment detail found in the archive was being fed back into modern designs. I know, I know, all this is beginning to sound like I heart Smedley’s, and maybe I do now. I was definitely impressed with this new-to-me world of garment quality staples. Looking through the decades and stories uncovered that Gran and I had gathered on our adventure together, it had become evident that the company and it’s ability to reinvent, however eccentric or progressive at the time, has held true to core values of brand quality. They’ve survived through the most challenging of business eras, becoming an example of high standard garment manufacture alive and knitting in Briton today. Yes, they have a high price tag to match but from now on I’m going to aim for less garments, but ones that last and make me feel like I’ve gained a lot more by feeling and appreciating the touch of soft unfelted wool and hopefully looking smarter at the same time. Gran and I celebrated this sentiment, and our time together with Jane, by spending the rest of it, along with our money, in the on site Factory Shop. Gran was instantly taken back by the vivid colours, in itself a noticeable progression from the garments we’d seen in the archive, she remarked “Oo, in my day, a man wouldn’t have been seen dead in pink or purple. Your Granddad once owned a pair of yellow socks but he got terribly embarrassed about it when we went to an auction and the auctioneer shouted, ‘Sold to the gentleman in the yellow socks!’, he was very shy about them after that.” We both agreed it would be great to see the Smedley’s archive being made public, so future generations can share their stories of machine knitted clothes, reminisce the characters who made or wore them and ask questions about garment manufacture’s development, passed to present.