John Smedley Ltd, Lea Mills

Smeldey Lea Mills

John Smedley Ltd are a partner on the Stories of Change project. Ian Maclean, the Managing Director of John Smedley Ltd is on the advisory board of the Stories project and also attended our launch in Oxford organised with TippingPoint. On Tuesday 2nd December we, 24 SSoA post graduate architecture students, photographer Tim Mitchell, and Renata and myself, were on the road (train, canal towpath, hillside track) again! Taking the train from Sheffield to Cromford, we met at Cromford Mills for a quick cup of tea and conversation about mapping, and a catch up on our visits so far. From here we wended our way up the canal towpath through the hills on what was a gloriously sunny day, taking in the intersections of the High Peak railway line, and an historic Pump House, on our way to John Smedley Ltd at Lea Mills

A factory has been sited at Lea Mills for 230 years;  originally water was used to power the mill and clean garments. John Smedley Ltd  makes wool, cotton and silk clothing; primarily underwear before the introduction of central heating and later, as the need for extra (under) layers seemed to diminish, increased production of high quality jumpers, dresses and cardigans. Our tour began in the18th Century part of the site, where we were introduced to archivists John Mumby and Jane Middleton Smith.

John worked at Smedleys for a number of years as a colourist, with his specialism being melange colours. He explained the making and design processes and the rigorous testing that their garments undergo, and demonstrated the various machines and processes this involved. Although there were a number of expensive and high-tec machines from Japan, much of the process still involves the careful assembly of garments by hand- we watched transfixed while one woman threaded each stitch of a collar onto needles to attach it to the main body of a jumper at an impressively fast pace. Like the family that owns the site, many of the people who work in the factory had parents and grandparents who had worked there previously and there are still a number of workers cottages on site.

We had met Jane Middleton Smith before at a DVMWHS (Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site) strategy meeting and it was great to catch up again. Jane has worked for a number of years with volunteers to make a record of the various designs, garments and assortments of fascinating objects; which ranged from clocks, to a stuffed Jay of the original logo, to drums, and photos of the Smedley family. She was visiting the Fashion and Textile Museum in London this week to give a talk about the evolution of their designs and the impact on their evolution from their collaborations with designers such as Vivienne Westwood, where examples of key pieces help her tell the story of the company. The company  archive runs to thousands of items, including some historic plans of the site. These reveal the complexity of the layout, which evolved on a difficult sloping site, with the company adding new buildings as the production changed and developed.

Smedleys’ is currently developing a master plan for the site with local architects Evans Vettori. As a recent recipient of the Royal Charter, in developing their site they will have to comply with certain sustainability requirements. The company also have high on their agenda issues such as how to deal with Grade II* Listed workers cottages, their needs in terms of space for manufacturing and production processes as a company in the 21st century, and having a suitable source of power on site, which is made more complex by the factories isolated location.

Photo: R.Tyszczuk

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