The stars have always loved John Smedley's knits, but they are a luxury that everyone can afford
What do Richard Gere, Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Paul Weller and Paul Newman have in common? One thing: they have all worn jumpers bearing the hand-sewn label with the jay bird symbol - the trademark of John Smedley.

It is hardly surprising that Smedley jumpers are bought by such a cosmopolitan set. The firm has been around for 200 years, long enough for any company to build up the smartest clientele. And this September, Smedley, (the company is still in the family) celebrates its birthday by opening its first shop in the genteel Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly.

Every Smedley jumper takes eight hours to make, from machine-knitting to pinning and pressing and hand finishing. The factory revolutionised the manufacturing process of knitted garments when it developed a way to produce knitwear under one roof, beginning with the spinning and dyeing of the raw material.

For such quality - the yarns are best-quality Australian merino, botany wool and sea island cotton - you would expect to pay the earth. You would expect to have to venture into the most exclusive and intimidating of shops. You would not expect to find such a jumper in your local department store. But more than 600,000 Smedley knits leave the Derbyshire factory each year. What's more, although they are by no means inexpensive, they are a luxury that mere mortals can afford.

Apart from the introduction of the odd piece of state-of-the-art technology, little has changed over the past two centuries at Lea Mills near Matlock. But John Smedley's knitwear has come a long way since the company first began producing yarn in 1795. Around 1850, it began to manufacture woollen grandad vests (still in production and virtually unchanged in design) and perfectly fashioned long johns. The family castle has since been sold and converted into a hotel, but the mills are still a family affair. Family members still hold the positions of president and chairman.

Smedley produces a limited range but what it does produce, it produces to the highest standards possible. Instead of making the mistake of trying to move with the times, the secret of the brand's continuing success is that the times have moved with it. The plain and simple three-buttoned Smedley polo shirt, in production since the Forties, defies fashion. "We are quite frightened of fashion - it's such a transient thing," says Tony Langford, managing director.

The company, whose turnover has grown in the last three years from pounds 12m to pounds 16m, has cleverly left fashion details to others. The young British designer Sonja Nuttall has used John Smedley jumpers in her collection for this autumn. Long skirts of wool devore are fused with fine-wool polo- neck jumpers to make easy "jumper-dresses". Nuttall also makes jumper- jackets in the same way. "A Smedley jumper is a fantastic finished product - I've worn them for years," she says. Her relationship with Smedley works well: they are happy to sponsor and accommodate her small quantity orders, while she takes an existing product and improvises around it.

Smedley has also made capsule collections for for Vivienne Westwood (she who made the classic twinset her own by the addition of her orb trademark and buttons), and Comme des Garcons. This autumn, the collaboration continues with Paul Smith and Margaret Howell, and a cardigan and skirt set has been developed with Mary Quant. On a mass-market level, Marks & Spencer uses Smedley yarns for some of its knitwear.

The first Smedley shop in London's Burlington Arcade will be stocking this autumn's collection with a retro feel. Dawn Telford, designer for John Smedley, has developed bold stripes that have come full circle since they were last aired on polo shirts around 30 years ago. As well as the classic twinsets, there are clingy sweater-girl knits with deep ribbing from beneath the bust, and plain knits with high V-necks and bold stripes or argyll patterns.

It was in the Thirties that Smedley became better known for its outerwear than its underwear. For this year's autumn/winter collection, Ms Telford has raided the archives and developed further the possibilities of "sweater dressing", ie combining knitted merino wool trousers with a twinset, or a polo shirt with a matching waistcoat.

But there won't be anything too shocking. "Smedley is about evolution rather than revolution," says Telford, who keeps the continuity of classic styles and colours carrying through from season to season. "I don't think it's possible to change it."

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