Last week I visited the John Smedley factory in Matlock, and it has quickly become my favourite anywhere. The oldest factory in the world still in production, it is nestled in between Derbyshire hills, with a babbling brook (the Lea) running through the middle of it.
The Lea, of course, powered the original mill wheel and was the reason the factory was located here – down the road from the first such factory in the world, Arkwright’s. There is a canal cut through the countryside, which took the cotton (the mills all started as cotton spinners) out for export, and the railway came here for the same reason. This was the start of the industrial revolution, and it is picturesque.
The factory grew and shrunk over the years. It successfully expanded to cope with government contracts during both the first and second world wars. Stand in the middle of the compound and you are surrounded by buildings from 1783, 1844, 1911 and 1950, all cobbled together with various buttresses, balconies and ironwork.
The inside of the factory is a rabbit warren as a result. Four floors, two of which are underground, with lots of half floors and ramps from one to the other. No matter which direction you go in, you end up and a big, central room that has had a section cordoned off because of an oil spillage. Some joker has drawn a chalk outline of a body in the middle of it.
John Smedley has gone through tough times in recent years, with less investment in design and product until Ian McLean took over in 2010. (He is the eighth generation of the family to run the business – can anyone else match that?) Fortunately that is now changing, with the classic collection expanding into slim fits, cashmere/silk mixes and different collar types. The basics stay the same, so men can buy the same pieces season after season, but there are now more options.
There is also a sleeveless cardigan coming in for A/W 2013 – which commentators on my recent post on such cardigans will welcome.
I always like to think that I care about quality and fit of menswear, to the exclusion of all else. But you can never escape emotion, inspiration and aspiration. The desire to identify with a brand and be part of it – by being a customer. I felt that at John Smedley.
Photos by Luke Carby