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John Smedley

Despite the knitwear brand’s booming exports, it maintains a close relationship with staff and suppliers

It’s not often that you can buy knitwear and trace it back to the farm from where it was shorn. At John Smedley, the closeness the brand has with its production – from sheep to shop – is increasingly rare in today’s retail environment.

“John Smedley has always placed importance on traceability but consumers are starting to see the relevance of it too,” explains new managing director Andrew Caughey.

“We deal directly with our sheep farmers in New Zealand, and we manufacture 97% of the product within a few miles of our head office in Derby. Going forward, I think being a self-sufficient, traceable company will be even more attractive to shoppers.”

The contemporary knitwear brand, which celebrates its 225th birthday in 2009, has had a transitional year. When former managing director Drew Walker died in December 2007, the company was left looking for a replacement who could offer the same passion, vision and dedication to the British brand.

Step forward, Caughey. Not a Brit, but a New Zealander who had worked at the supply end of John Smedley. He appreciates the beauty of merino wool and understands the importance of the brand’s ‘Made in England’ tag. “I value the significance of Britishness to the brand,” says Caughey. “This company has so much richness to it. There are so many jewels here just waiting to be released.”

Those jewels include the product, which is undergoing a revamp for autumn 09. From next season, the women’s and men’s collections will be treated as two separate entities, with a new head of womenswear and independent photo shoots. “At the moment menswear generates the majority of our profits, but we want to flip that around so that womenswear counts for the main bulk,” says Caughey.Part of getting the new product message out there is the appointment of an in-house marketing manager, Charlotte Mills, who previously worked at technology products and services firm DuPont. “We did some market research and three out of four people within a 12-mile radius didn’t know we were here, yet we are so important industrially to this area. We have to change this,” she says.

While the locals may be unaware of the Derby-based business, there are plenty of people outside the UK who know about the brand. Exports account for 70% of its yearly turnover. “This is a good time to be focusing on growing our export arm,” says Caughey. “We’ve been available in Japan for more than 30 years and our presence in Russia has doubled in the past year.”

Despite Caughey’s upbeat forecast, the impending recession has already had an effect on the business. “Our energy costs have risen 30% this year, but that just means we have to work smarter,” says Caughey. “Some of our staff have been working with us for 50 years. They are a big part of our business’s success and we would never want to lose that.”

John Smedley 01629 534571


70%: Proportion of John Smedley’s turnover that comes from export business

1996: Year John Smedley began direct supply contracts with its sheep farmers

224: Number of years the brand has been manufacturing knitwear

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