At the John Smedley factory in Derbyshire, every room has a name, a function and a noise. The Fully Fashion room in the knitting department, named after its machinery, is the loudest and requires all who enter to pop in a set of neon earplugs. Inside, Ken Brierley is overseeing a long machine producing a navy blue jumper, an aisle of twelve identical sleeves is methodically emerging in perfect unison and lands in little plastic tubs. Some of the machines in this room date back to the 1950s, Ken and his colleagues refer to them as the “old ladies” because they don’t like the heat, they don’t like the cold and they tend to tire easily. But when they run, they roar, click-click-click, swoosh, and repeat.
“Ken and his colleagues refer to their machines as the “old ladies” because they tire easily. But when they run, they roar, click-click- click, swoosh and repeat.”
Ken has worked at John Smedley for 47 years. His wife Pat, who works in the sewing room, has been here on and off for the last 45. He’s worked at the same machine since 1978 (“I won’t repeat what I call it sometimes!”), and points to another on the other side of the room, which is the one he worked on at the time he got married. They avoid moving around too much on the factory floor, Ken knows his machine’s every nook and cranny, its idiosyncrasies and its problem areas. When something is wrong with his old lady, he knows where to look.
Ken Brierley at the John Smedley Factory
We’re a long way from the new shop on Jermyn Street, which opened in June in time for London Collections: Men. This was its third season at LCM, and it showed the relaunched womenswear for the Spring/Summer 2016 season at London Fashion Week. They’ve recently teamed up with Alex James of Blur with a special edition jumper that highlights the sustainability of wool.
According to the in-house archivist Jane Middleton-Smith, much of the Jermyn Street store’s design takes its cues from the factory: a leather runner is inspired by one here that is used to mute the sound of rickety old trolleys on wooden floors, replicas of chairs and lampshades are created based on the historic pieces in the archive. With the great heritage of British-made apparel along Jermyn Street, John Smedley, which produces everything here in Derbyshire, fits right in.
The archive at the John Smedley factory, one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the UK.
The chairs and lampshade in the archive that informed the interior design of the Jermyn Street store
Garments have been manufactured on this site by people like Ken and Pat since 1784, but the Smedley family was in the hosiery business well back into the 18th century. They produced the long stockings gentlemen wore with their breeches, later moving into underwear in the Victorian era and ultimately jumpers, polos and outerwear in the 20th century. After John Smedley Sr founded the company it was passed down to his son, John Smedley Jr, and despite a few lateral movements to cousins or sons-in-law, the business has remained in the same family line since its inception.
The resulting sense of community is palpable at the factory. Employees from the area start here after they finish school and stay for decades, so do their husbands or wives and their children. Head of design Pip Jenkins, who knows the first name and nickname of nearly everyone in the 300-strong factory, is still considered a newbie. She’s been here for six years. When are you no longer a newbie? “Probably at 40 years,” she laughs.
Head of design, Pip Jenkins
“Head of design Pip Jenkins is still considered a newbie. She’s worked here six years. When are you no longer a newbie? “Probably at 40 years!”
It takes a garment about four weeks to move through the factory. Cotton is brought in from Peru or America and wool from New Zealand, and spun in Italy. Once it arrives, the yarn is dyed and then re-spooled to prepare it for knitting. Some of it goes to the Fully Fashion room, where we met Ken. Or it goes to the Trims Department, where the ribbed ends of a sleeve or collars are produced.
Some of the oldest machines in the factory are in Trims. The long collar of the Isis polo shirt, which has been made to the same block (and name) since the 1930s, can only be made on one 50-year-old machine. “We’ve tried
it on newer ones,” says Jenkins, “but it’s just not as nice.” When that machine dies (and the on-site team of mechanics isn’t about to let that happen), so too does the Isis collar.
The Isis collar is woven in one of the oldest machines in the factory.
The sewing room beholds a sea of mostly women leaning over their machines. They chat amongst each other, they listen to audio books on headphones as their hands move with agility and precision. They’ve decorated their sewing machines, on one cylindrical machine a woman has taped a photo of her daughter, which rotates in and out of view as she works. Here, trims are linked to sleeves and sleeves to the torso and collars to the neck. We meet Pat, Ken’s wife, who has a jumper stretched over a garmatic machine, two glowing bars that look like upwardly stretched light-up legs. She’s examining the jumper as part of its final inspection, making up just one of many quality control checkpoints in the process.
In the sewing room
The finishing touches
Down in the washing room, the men are a bit more boisterous, but that may be because we’ve caught them right at the beginning of their shift. Nearly-completed garments tumble down a chute from the upstairs sewing room. Here, tattooed arms toss garments into the drums of industrial washers, then into the dryers, then sorted on a long wooden table. After years and years of textiles brushing against the table’s surface, the wood has been softened to a velvety texture, which is one of Pip’s favourite things to show visitors. A machine used to turn inside-out shirts the right-side-in howls over the tinny rumble of the adjacent washers and dryers.
Overlooking the washing room and the ultra-soft folding table
The factory exists quite remotely. With the exception of a cluster of cottages, mostly belonging to factory workers, there is little here. The doughy hills are covered with leafy trees and a single road runs through. A bus stop is labelled “Smedley Works,” but the bus doesn’t come that often. The sounds outside are of birds, voices loading and unloading trucks and a bustling stream, which provides the freshwater for the washing room.
Every so often, when a bell brrrrings through the factory it means one of three things; a shift is starting, a shift is ending, or it’s time for lunch. But those who work here have worked here long enough to know exactly how far into their shift they are. With the 4 o’clock bell, they start to shut down their machines, brush off their hands, and step aside for the next shift to begin.