A lot’s changed since 1784. Slavery's been abolished, the light bulb invented, the industrial revolution revolted. But whilst the Britain we live in today is vastly different, some things have managed to escape Old Father Time largely unscathed. For example, if you had taken a stroll through the idyllic Derbyshire Dales from Matlock to Lea Bridge in 1784, and taken the shortcut along the river Derwent, you’d have stumbled across a mill housing a factory making clothing and spinning yarn. And whilst the walk might be a little noisier thanks to the traffic, and less idyllic thanks to some newer buildings, you would still find that same factory today, still spinning yarn, and still operated by John Smedley.
World renowned as a leader in fine gauge knitwear, John Smedley is the most iconic of British brands. Their operating out of the world’s oldest manufacturing factory is testament, not only to generations of dedication, but to a continued commitment to innovation. Their standing as one of the most longevous British brands is as much thanks to the first John Smedley (there was four of them in total) opening one of the very first factories, as it is to his subsequent namesakes who continued to push at the boundaries of manufacturing without losing sight of the principles of good craftsmanship. The original industrial revolutionaries.
The John Smedley Story
Inspired by industrious bigwig, Richard Arkwright's success up the road in Cromford a few years before, Peter Nightingale and his associate John Smedley (the first, that is) decided to have a go at building their own factory. Named Lea Mills after the area it was situated in, the mill bridged a tributary of the river Derwent, harnessing its flow to power the cotton and wool processing machinery inside.
By the end of the 18th century, Lea Mills was doing well. Now without Peter Nightingale, who’d passed away, the factory was leased to the Smedley family who continued producing hosiery and woolen undergarments. It was around this time that John Smedley is reputedly credited for the invention of that Dickensian favourite, Long Johns. Whether they’re named after John Smedley himself or legendary boxer John L. Sullivan isn’t clear, but their success is most probably one of the reasons for building the Smedley name early on.
"Only the highest-quality materials should be used, cornerstones of the business to this day..."
In 1818, John Smedley’s son (John Smedley the second) joined the business as an apprentice. Although he left school aged just 14, he took to the business quickly and by the tender age of 24 he’d taken over the running of the factory. Ambitious and energetic, he wanted to update the mill and set about modernising machinery and growing the business. Wanting to improve Smedley products, he decided that the whole of the manufacturing process should take place under the Lea Mills roof and only the highest-quality materials should be used, cornerstones of the business to this day.
John Smedley's Riber Castle overlooking Matlock, Derbyshire. Image: dawarwickphotography
But John Smedley (the second) wasn’t just a keen businessman. On top of improving the John Smedley business, he was an eager philanthropist and spent a lot of time and money investing in the local area. As well as charity work, he was particularly interested in hydrotherapy, a treatment using water to treat ailments, and set up a world famous spa and treatment centre in nearby Matlock and built himself a castle over looking the town with its profits. How modest.
With no heir, when John Smedley (the second) died in 1875 the business was passed to another John Smedley, John T Marsden-Smedley, his cousin. Unfortunately, John Smedley (the third) only lasted a couple of years and in 1877 was replaced by his son, John B Marsden-Smedley, or John Smedley for short.
"The business gradually became popular throughout the world with 70% of their orders shipped abroad"
Chairman for an impressive 70 years, John Smedley (the fourth) invested heavily in up-dating the business. Now pursuing knitted outerwear as well as the undergarments they’d earned their reputation for, the business gradually became popular throughout the world with 70% of their orders shipped abroad. In 1960, after a visit from the Queen, it was announced that John Smedley was the official knitwear supplier to the palace, an accolade they’ve retained to this day, receiving the Royal Warrant of Appointment as a provider of fine knitwear in January 2013.
Despite having a history that dwarfs most others, John Smedley have managed to stay relevant throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. A fashion must for the mods in the late 50s, their reputation for high-quality British-made knitwear has earned them the respect of new generations of designers and textilers. Working with the likes of Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood and more recently Liam Gallagher’s label Pretty Green, they’ve consistently produced clothing that doesn’t ride on its heritage but harnesses the lessons learned from it.
A look inside the John Smedley factory at Lea Mills today
Fine Gauge Knitwear
Having spent centuries mastering their craft, John Smedley have gained a reputation for producing some of the highest quality fine-gauge knitted garments in the world. The gauge of a garment refers to a number of stitches it has per square inch and is normally down to the size of the needle or the yarn used when producing it. The thicker the needle or yarn used, the lower the gauge of the garment while a garment made with a less thick yarn or needle would have a higher gauge.
Detail on the Haddon fine gauge cashmere & cotton polo
Although John Smedley make a number of garments using medium and low gauges, they’re most famous for their use of ultra fine gauges of over 25 stitches per square inch with their most used gauge being 30 stitches per square inch. Found on a lot of their lighter products like the Haddon and Adrian polos as well as overwear items like their Claygate cardigan, this ultra fine gauge is a mark of precision.
Since day one, a cornerstone of John Smedley’s business has been to source the best materials. Whether it’s finer polos, thick-knit jumpers, or socks, knitted garments made with low-quality yarns will never be as comfortable or long-lasting. Opting for fine merino wools and high-standard processed cottons, John Smedley ensures they produce something truly luxurious from step one.
Merino wool comes from a breed of sheep that have been bred for their fine wool for centuries. With such fine fibres, merino wool is renowned for being soft and breathable, making it perfect for fine gauge outerwear garments like the John Smedley Claygate zip cardigan.
By sourcing a high-standard of ultra-fine merino, John Smedley ensure their garments are not only sustainable and better at producing and holding colours, but produce the ultimate lightweight layer. This makes them better at retaining heat even when air is damp, better at trapping warm air, and avoids that unpleasant ‘clammy’ feeling thanks to being naturally breathable.
Sea Island Cotton
One of the most common clothing materials, well-processed cotton can still be difficult to find. With their Sea Island cotton, John Smedley ensure they source the highest grade possible right from the sorting and ginning processes at the start through to the dyeing and spinning before knitting.
Either combined with uber-luxurious cashmere or on its own, John Smedley's sea island cotton makes for some of the best quality polos and cardigans you can find. In garments like this Haddon polo, the Sea Island cotton combined with perfected fine-gauge knits makes for a garment that's light, breathable, and sublimely soft.
Find out more about John Smedley and see our full range of products here.