Our series of brands doing an item of clothing especially well continues this month with John Smedley knitwear

You can never underplay how old John Smedley knitwear is. Place the brand’s 230 plus years of existence on a timeline and its trajectory from 1784 to this day outstretches clothing brands, household names, even nations. Older than most fashion houses and a mere eight years younger than the United States of America, the brand that sat at the forefront of the industrial revolution remains one of the nation’s foremost heritage brands.

Heritage isn’t just a badge though, a rosette that reads ‘we’re extremely old, buy our stuff’. With Smedley’s long illustrious timeline of existence comes a level of experience that transfers to its garments. When you’ve been doing one thing (well) consistently, for so long, it tends to transfer to the quality of the product. When I ask head of design and marketing, Jess Mcguire-Dudley, why Smedley knitwear is the best in the world her reasons channel history, but don’t rest on it.

She references the Smedley factory being the oldest manufacturing factory in the world but also the materials that they use in garment making, having maintained relationships with their current merino farmers for some 50 years. There’s a mention of the famous Sea Island cotton too, as well as the balance of new technology with age old craftsmanship. Every garment is washed in the local spring water, which gives the knitwear its unique handle and many items are hand-finished, using techniques such as hand cutting necklines and hand stitching for finer details. New Japanese sewing machines compliment long-serving industrial relics on the Lea Bridge factory floor. We’ve experienced the processes first hand on a recent trip.

The brand has always innovated too. As Mcguire-Dudley points out, knitwear design was not the only area the brand pioneered. “The brand is iconic and steeped in a truly rich heritage, but what really attracted me to it, was a small story about how the original John Smedley was one of the pioneers in not only knitwear design, but also branding, at a time when most clothing was sold under purely department stores names, without any true ‘brands’. He had the foresight to ensure his name was placed on every garment, creating a symbol of quality forever linked to his brand. At the time I remember thinking this was amazing and so innovative for that period of time.”

Not only has quality persisted at Smedley, but so has style. Its output is a roll call of individual items made to last and feel great, but also to look stylish, many timeless. When thinking of the brand’s garments, the ‘Bobby’ jumper and ‘Isis’ polo shirt are good places to start. Both are extremely stylish, can be dressed up or down, feel great to the touch and have plenty of famous admirers. Both have stood the test of time. The ‘Isis’ polo, the brand’s first ever short sleeve polo, originally produced in 1932 has remained the same ever since, its classic features untouched and gone on to inspire a host of polo styles since. The ‘Bobby’ meanwhile, remains a wardrobe staple, a must have jumper, 100 per cent extra fine merino wool, v neck and perfect for smart or casual. ‘Skyfall’ is its most iconic film outing of late. When asked how perceptions of knitwear have changed, Mcguire-Dudley feels perceptions of knitwear have shifted. “Previously it may have been seen as an add on item or a single wardrobe piece such as the sweater for example, now people are understanding how versatile knitted product can be and brands such as ourselves are embracing this to create new categories. This season for example we launched the first John Smedley knitted, fully tailored suit alongside knitted coats, dresses, accessories and of course sweaters.”

AW17 is also touched upon, with reference to the way in which raw materials are being explored. “We’ve explored not only existing and new fibres, but also the environment that cultivates these fibres, the collection is tactile and natural using new fibres such as alpaca, wild silks and boucle. Silhouettes are chunky befitting an outdoorsy feel and the colour palette showcases variants of green from khaki to bright grass like shades alongside flares of burnt orange, rich charcoals and tones of blue.”

“The pinnacle piece to our collection is ‘The Black Sheep x John Smedley’ which celebrates one of the most unusual fibres of black sheep wool. The black sheep are unfortunately often culled from the herd as their wool cannot be over dyed and takes on the factors of their environment creating individual shades. We saw a real beauty in this and wanted to showcase the individuality of these sheep and their rare wool. So we created a capsule collection blending this unique fibre with our cashmere and merino yarns to remove any scratchiness on the skin. Each piece is truly unique as the wool’s colour is determined by the sheep’s environment with the wool appearing as a mix of black, charcoal, natural brown and grey shades.”

When asked for another brand doing one thing well, Jess singles out another British heritage brand. “Trickers shoes do a fantastic job of blending its heritage with modern British craftsmanship. It is true to what it does best, and yet can deliver contemporary innovation because its dedication to quality is showcased across every category.”

In a world where every brand wants a story, Smedley sits atop a heritage that can’t be purchased on the spot or thought up in a boardroom. It’s a heritage and quality that is only purchasable with the currencies of experience and time. A heritage that is evident in every garment it makes. EJ

Words by Davey Brett