When lockdown was first put in place, we went into shock. Then we went into action. It was fascinating to see how some of our favourite fashion brands leapt into solutions-mode (and how some of them didn't! ...but that's another feature). From converting perfume factories into hand sanitizer production lines, to the biggest push of answering the call for much needed Personal Protective Equipment for the frontlines of the hospital and carehome staff.

John Smedley is one of the British brands that pivoted from making our beloved, soft knits to understanding how they could safely convert their factory into a PPE production facility. Linking up with the Emergency Designer Network setup by the Holly Fulton, Bethany Williams and Phoebe English with the help of Cozette McCreery to coordinate independent designer efforts, John Smedley's Marketing and Design Director Jess McGuire-Dudley was quick to sign up. We spoke with her to better understand how the brand approached its pivot in a time of need.

How did John Smedley get involved with the Emergency Designer Network? 
In 2015 I set up a project at John Smedley to connect our manufacturing expertise with new design talent in the UK and help designers bring their production back to the UK in a way they could afford and trust. The first designers we worked with included Holly Fulton, Lou Dalton and Phoebe English and we have been closely working together on various projects ever since, so when I first saw the need for scrubs garments and wanted to research how we could help they were the first people I turned to. Originally, I contacted them looking for advice about the best ways to set up relationships with the NHS but it made much more sense for us to collectively pool our knowledge and resources and to join forces. We were able to work together on developing their patterns for John Smedley’s skills and machinery and helped source the best fabrics. We were also able to bring their distribution to the East Midlands areas, adding more than 30 new NHS trusts and surgeries. In addition to making scrubs ourselves, we were also able to support with trims and labels on a mass scale to ensure these were readily available for other EDN members too.

What have the challenges been in making PPE over the last couple of months?
Luckily, our machinery and teams' skills were all translatable to making scrubs once we had a pattern we could modify, [so] the making of the pieces was fairly simple. The initial challenge was persuading a nervous workforce to work with us, as although they were all very keen to support the NHS, there was also natural nervousness about coming out of the furlough scheme and returning to a work environment. We spent weeks working through our entire factory with both internal and external Health & Safety advisors to ensure a completely safe working environment and put over 23 new practices in place to ensure staff safety and win over their hearts and minds in order to bring the teams back. It was also a real challenge to source and buy the correct medical grade fabrics as many were out of stock, so initially just getting hold of the fabrics took over 3 weeks, but once we built up the relationship with the supplier it all fell into place from there.

Now that it's been a couple of months later, is there still that urgent demand for PPE?
We had an immediate response from every hospital, care home and surgery that we reached out to back in April and although we’ve been able to supply thousands of scrubs garments, there is still a need for more across every area, the garments are essential kit and sadly still in low supply from the usual areas so it has been down to organisations like the EDN to fill the gap and keep our NHS staff safe.

What have you learned from this experience? Was there anything that surprised you through this journey?
Personally I have been re-inspired by the power of people, I always refer to what I call ‘everyday kindness’ being more powerful than a grand gesture and I would say this project is one that shows that it is groups of real people getting together to put their collective best efforts into supporting the NHS during a crisis. There are no egos involved, no one is doing this for exposure, it's real and genuine and it’s wonderful to see so many individuals and companies working in solidarity. Human nature can always surprise you for the better or the worse and this project shows how much good there can be when the right people get together.

On top of John Smedley's unexpected foray into PPE production, this year also happens to mark the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale - she who first implemented handwashing to combat the spread of infection and disease! Nightingale was also a key figure in championing the importance of women developing a work life beyond the decorative, domestic role expected in Victorian society.  The plan to launch a special Nightingale clothing collection to celebrate her achievements had been in the works for a spring launch, but was pushed back to last month for obvious reasons. The collection features her original embroidered signature on to garments in her favourite shades of blue and white, and a special tribute of owl embroidery on the pocket of garments in recognition of her pet owl ‘Athena’ whom she used to carry around the village of Lea, where John Smedley is based in the pockets of her dresses.

Nightingale herself spent her early years at the family home, Lea Hurst, in Lea Village, Derbyshire (the home of John Smedley). Lea Hurst, the villages of Lea and Crich, and John Smedley’s Lea Mills factory site are all within close walking distance of each other. Many of the inhabitants of the villages were employed in John Smedley’s factory and benefited from Florence’s healthcare advice.  The collection features special packaging to tell the story of Florence Nightingale’s legacy and her connections to the John Smedley brand, and in honour of Florence’s work 20% of all proceeds will be donated to the Nightingale Nurses.

You can view the Nightingale x John Smedley Capsule here