THE John Smedley polo shirt is the staple of the modern male wardrobe. It was no coincidence that when the Eighties turned into the Nineties, and men ditched their power suits and flash Harry ties, sales of John Smedley polo shirts soared. No other garment quite so effectively summed up the sense of relaxation in men's dressing.

The Smedley shirt looks smart under a jacket or suit because it is made from fine-gauge knitwear, which means it is thinner and more finely stitched than the bulky sweaters you throw on over shirts. It has replaced the shirt- and-tie combination for a generation of men who admit they don't feel comfortable in a stiff-collared shirt and neck-strangulating tie.

It also feels good against the skin because it is made from good- quality cotton or wools - typically, sea island cotton for spring/summer, and soft merino and botany wools for autumn/winter.

Since the mid-Eighties, fashion designers have recognised the exceptional qualities of the John Smedley product. Among the names that have used the company's factories are Paul Smith, Comme des Garcons, Ralph Lauren, Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood, although they sell the shirts with rather higher price tags.

The polo shirt is only part of it. Smedley makes knitted shirts to every kind of design, from roll collars, mock turtle necks and V- necks to the zip-up styles that are popular this season. Then there are T-shirts, cardigans, waistcoats and underwear. Most are now made for both men and women.

Those who have heard the Smedley name only in the last five years may be surprised to learn that the company was at the forefront of the original Industrial Revolution. It built a reputation for its yarns and underwear garments in Lea Bridge, Derbyshire, just down the road from where Sir Richard Arkwright had opened the world's first water-powered spinning mill. In 1877, Smedley installed one of the first 'Cotton's Patent' fully-fashioned knitting machines, which meant that garments could be knitted in one piece to precisely the right shape.

Smedley's knitwear is 24 and 30 gauge, which is about as fine as you can get. The average lambswool sweater, by contrast, is around 15 gauge. Most knitwear manufacturers cast envious eyes at Smedley's technological skills. Graham Robinson, sales and marketing director, explains: 'You can't tack on some 30-gauge production. It's not a skill you can introduce overnight.'

None of this expertise comes cheap. The John Smedley short- sleeved sea island cotton polo shirt sells for pounds 49, the long-sleeved style for pounds 57.50, while the Smedley shirts made on behalf of other retailers and designers are even more expensive. I usually buy several Smedley shirts at sale time (although the range of colours is severely depleted by the end of the season). Anyone who finds themselves in Derbyshire should certainly make a point of visiting the factory shop.

From the mid-Eighties, the company introduced a strong element of fashion into its ranges, including looser fits and a broad range of good colours. The reward was a sharp leap in orders: a copybook example of how the input of designers can transform the fortunes of manufacturers.

For this spring, the temptation (for both men and women) is to wear Smedley garments in layers in the way we've pictured them here: putting together polo shirts, V-neck sweaters and cardigans.

This spring's V-necks have a higher neckline, which means they fit better under the new high- buttoning men's jackets. For women, shapes are a little more snug and fitted, again, so they can be worn under jackets. The women's range is worth keeping an eye on because it is expanding with every season. Best buys include the Smedley bodies with either short sleeves and wide boat necks or long sleeves and scoop necks.

Stockists with the broadest range of John Smedley products include:

S Fisher, 22-23 Burlington Arcade, London W1; Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Noble Jones, 7 Hill Street, Richmond; Flannels, 4 St Ann's Place, Manchester; Wade Smith, Matthew Street, Liverpool; Cruise, 39 Renfield Street, Glasgow.

For opening times of the factory shop at Lea Bridge, Derbyshire, telephone 0629 534571.

(Photograph omitted)