Sunspel's Heritage, Craft & Style

British Fashion Council

Sunspel is an authentic English heritage brand founded in 1860. Sunspel make exceptional quality, everyday clothing from beautiful fabrics.

SUNSPEL
Sunspel has been making exceptional quality clothing for over 150 years, since it began in 1860. Thomas Hill founded the firm to supply the British Empire with high quality underwear, the label has always been an intriguing combination of innovation and tradition. 
HISTORY

THOMAS ARTHUR HILL

Thomas Arthur Hill founded Sunspel. He was born in 1822, the 11th of 12 children, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. His father, John Pinkerton Hill, was a hosiery maker in Nottingham and Thomas followed his father into the hosiery and lace trade.

TEXTILES INNOVATOR

Steam power was about to usher in a period of enormous worldwide change. The textile industry was one of the earliest manufacturing sectors to embrace this change and Thomas Hill found himself at the heart of it.

Thomas Hill was not only one of the great early British industrialists but also a fabric innovator.

CELLULAR COTTON

Sunspel founder Thomas Hill pioneered the use of lace-making technology in the late 1800s, creating a unique 100% cotton cellular fabric.

1860: SUNSPEL IS ESTABLISHED

Thomas Hill opened his textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham, which was to become the centre of the British lace making industry. He used his fabric expertise to make lightweight, soft clothing in very fine cotton and pioneered the development of luxury undergarments, as we know them today.

SUNSPEL ARCHIVE GARMENT

Some of the earliest garments made in the Newdigate factory included tunics and undershirts that were some of the earliest t-shirts ever made.

1918-1929: WORLD EXPORT

At the beginning of the 20th Century Sunspel built a significant export business across what was then the British Empire and was one of the earliest British companies to export to the Far East. Company records show that a shipment of Sunspel garments due for Hong Kong and China was aboard the N.Y.K Hirano Maru, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat in the Irish Sea in 1918.

SEA ISLAND COTTON

Sunspel developed it’s unique Sea Island cotton fabrics sourced from the West Indies in the beginning of the 20th century. The long-staple fibre gives the yarn notable strength and smooth, premium softness. It is regarded as one of the world’s rarest and most luxurious cottons, it makes up only 0.0004% of the world’s cotton supplies.

1930S: 'SUNNY' AND 'SPELL'

The Sunspel logo was created in the 1930s, playing with the words 'sunny and 'spell'. The link to the sun came from the company’s reputation for the use of Sea Island yarns across undershirts and underwear by the early 20th Century.

The name Sunspel, refers to the almost magical balance of sun, humidity, and rain in the Sea Islands, that ensured this rare high quality yarn thrived. Coming to define the Sea Island cotton era of Sunspel.

1929-1937: SURVIVING THE GREAT DEPRESSION

The near total collapse of world trade after the financial crash of 1929 forced the company to contract. The factory moved from Nottingham to Long Eaton, where it remains today and the business focused on selling its premium line of Sea Island cotton underwear.

1939-1945: THE SECOND WORLD WAR

The outbreak of war again changed the company’s direction, driving it temporarily away from luxury products to the production of utility garments for the war effort. Sunspel’s offices in Bruton Street, London, suffered a direct hit during the Blitz.

1947: THE BOXER SHORT

In 1947 John Hill left the post-war gloom of Britain for the glamour of boom time America. Influenced by the ideas and innovations of New York he saw the opportunity to bring the boxer short to the UK. John Hill not only brought the boxer short back from America, he also perfected its design.

FOR COMFORT

The first Sunspel boxers were made from Sea Island cotton and designed for comfort. They were cut with a unique back panel (to avoid a middle seam) and all seams were double turned and feld locked flat to the fabric to avoid itchiness. Sunspel boxers continue to be made in the finest fabrics and to this original pattern.

1985: AN ICON IS BORN

It was in 1985, when Levis launched the ad to beat all ads, and the boxer short achieved icon status; featuring a young Nick Kamen whipping off his Levis to stone wash them in a launderette while he stood there in nothing but his white cotton boxers. It was a sensation and the classic white boxer short sealed its position as a more fashionable choice than the old fashioned brief. That one advert changed underwear history forever and the pristine white boxers worn by Kamen in the ad were Sunspel boxers.

Style journalist and author Robert Elms has said;

“Before the boy in the launderette, nobody wore boxers. Almost overnight, men who would once have seen boxer shorts as stuffily old-fashioned were buying boxers in their droves. And ever since, a pair of white cotton Sunspel’s has been the boxer of choice of those in the know.”

2005: A NEW ERA

Sunspel was acquired by Nicholas Brooke and Dominic Hazlehurst in 2005. The owners have been instrumental in moving the brand into the 21st century, whilst at the same remaining true to the heritage that makes Sunspel so well loved. A womenswear line was introduced in 2011.

2006: DRESSING JAMES BOND

The Sunspel name has been synonymous with the quintessential style of James Bond ever since Daniel Craig wore it in his role as 007 in Casino Royale. Sunspel began a close association with British cinema when approached to develop for Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond. Craig wore the Riviera Polo Shirt in the opening sequence of Casino Royale and it became synonymous with the new modern image of the Bond franchise.

THE RIVIERA POLO SHIRT

The Riviera Polo Shirt is made from warp knit cotton fabric invented in the 1950s by Peter Hill, the grandson of the company’s founder. Unsatisfied with the pique polo shirts that were available at the time, he sought to create a version that would be cool and comfortable to wear in the hot summer sun of the Riviera.

THE ENGLISH T-SHIRT

THE ORIGINS OF THE T-SHIRT

The origins of the t-shirt can be traced back to as early as 1913 when the US Navy replaced the standard issue square-necked, shoulder-buttoning shirt, with a woolen, cropped sleeve undershirt. As exporters of cotton underwear throughout the British Empire, Sunspel perfected the art of making these undershirts softer, lighter, more breathable and ultimately more comfortable than ever before. This was a defining moment in the development of the t-shirt as we know it today.

THE MODERN T-SHIRT

It was around this time that the Sunspel t-shirt reached its now-iconic simplicity: the buttons which had originally featured below the neck were gone, long sleeves were now short, and cuffs, pockets and collars were all removed.

MADE IN ENGLAND

The t-shirt remains Sunspel’s core style. Since 1860, Sunspel have been innovating ways to make t-shirts as soft, light and as comfortable as possible.

Today’s styles are almost identical to the original fifties models – only updated with a unique two-fold jersey fabric, a descendant of the original lisle cotton Sunspel used on some of the earliest t-shirts ever made. Sunspel’s classic crew neck t-shirts are made in England.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by the British Fashion Council in collaboration with Sunspel and A.I. PR; in particular, Cyril Crenstil of Sunspel and Naomi Lyon of A.I. PR must be thanked for all of their help in creating this exhibit.

All rights belong to Sunspel Ltd. unless otherwise stated.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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