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Sunspel — History, Philosophy, and Iconic Products

Born in the height of the British Industrial Revolution, Sunspel has been producing high-quality basics since the mid-nineteenth century. From luxury boxer shorts to clean cut polo shirts, Sunspel is known for its understated everyday garments constructed from high-quality fabrics.

But the Sunspel story isn’t as clean and simple as their garments—it is one of innovation, resilience, and sartorial excellence. We’re taking a look back at the history of Sunspel and how the brand has cemented as one of the most esteemed British clothing manufacturers.

Sunspel History

Beginnings in the English Midlands

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Thomas Arthur Hill via Sunspel

Sunspel was established as Thomas A Hill Ltd. in 1860 by Thomas Arthur Hill. Born in 1822, Hill was one of twelve children born to John Pinkerton Hill, a lace and hosiery maker who plied his trade in Nottingham, England. Thomas Hill followed in his father’s steps by pursuing a career in the booming textile industry of the nineteenth century.

Steam power had revolutionized the production of textiles, and Nottingham had established itself as the center of the British lace making industry. Hill profited from his hometown’s success by climbing the ladder of market-leading hosiery and underwear producer I & R Morley. By his thirties, Hill was a chief partner at I & R Morley with a keen eye for quality fabrics and commitment to textile innovation.

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An early Sunspel undershirt with henley neckline via Sunspel

Hill had a vision to create his own line of simple, everyday undergarments made from luxurious fabrics. In 1860, he parted ways with I & R Morley and opened his textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham. Hill procured the finest cottons to produce a range of lightweight tunics, singlets, and undershirts. The undershirts made by Thomas A. Hill Ltd. are among some of the first t-shirts ever made. The company soon earned a reputation for producing some of the finest garments to be worn close to the skin.

Sea Island Success

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Sunspel’s Long Eaton Factory in the 1930s via Sunspel

By the early 1900s, Hill was exporting garments as far as Hong Kong, making Sunspel one of the earliest British companies to export to the Far East. But like many, Hill was affected by the global financial crash of 1929, however, the company survived by moving operations to a downsized factory in Long Eaton where it concentrated on the production of its Sea Island cotton underwear. It was after this move that the company took on the Sunspel moniker of its esteemed underwear range.

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Vintage Sunspel neck labels via Sunspel

The name Sunspel itself is a play on the words ‘sunny’ and ‘spell’England is not exactly known for its sunny weather, so the brand took inspiration from their use of Sea Island cotton, a long-staple cotton harvested from much warmer climes. The Sea Islands themselves are known for their balance of sun, humidity, and rain:  a spell that allows the finest cotton crops to thrive.

After surviving World War I, the eruption of World War II saw Sunspel shift its focus from luxury undergarments to utilitarian garb for the British armed forces in the late 1930s. Thankfully, Sunspel’s newly designed ‘Quality 14’ fabric—a cellular knit cotton mesh that was soft and breathable—saw them win big contracts to produce undergarments for the British military. Despite their London office being directly bombed during the Blitz, Sunspel was able to stay in production throughout the war.

An American Import and the Boy in the Laundrette

 

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Images via The Business of Fashion (left) and Sunspel (right).

Sunspel looked to reinstate themselves into the luxury market after the war. Since its conception, the management and running of Sunspel had been passed to many different members of the Hill family. In 1947, John Hill took over a Sunspel whose exports to Asia had understandably dwindled since the conclusion of World War II, so John Hill traveled to blossoming post-war America for inspiration.

After spending time in New York, John was most taken by America’s appreciation of the boxer short. He brought the American undergarment back to the U.K. and redesigned it in line with his brand’s blueprint: cut from Sea Island cotton and with a unique back panel to avoid a middle seam. They also made sure all seams were double turned and feldlocked flat to the fabric to reduce itchiness. With comfort at the forefront of the Sunspel Boxer Short, Sunspel released their new undergarment in 1947 with the tagline “men feel swell in Sunspel”. Soon after the introduction of the Sunspel boxer short, Sunspel bolstered their collections by adding knitted polo shirts and newly redesigned t-shirts that ditched the henley neckline for a crew neck.

By the end of the 1950s, Sunspel had built a roster of understated, English-built basics constructed from a host of luxury fabrics, including “Quality 75″, a warp-knit fabric invented by Peter Hill, Thomas Arthur Hill’s grandson. Quality 75 was designed as a lightweight alternative to the heavy piqué cotton traditionally used in the production of polo shirts during the 1950s, and Sunspel utilized this fabric on their classic Riviera Polo Shirts that still remain in production today.

Sunspel-Brand-Profile-History,-Philosophy,-and-Iconic-Products-The-iconic-Levi's-501-advert-that-featured-Sunspel-boxer-shorts-via-Sunspel

The iconic Levi’s 501 advert that featured Sunspel boxer shorts via Sunspel

Although Sunspel boxer shorts were popular enough to remain in production for decades to come, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that a high brow Levi’s commercial would make the boxer short the underwear of choice.

The commercial featured a young Nick Kamen stripping off in a launderette to the soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. After throwing his Levi’s in the washer, Kamen is left in just a pair of Sunspel boxer shorts. The commercial saw men across the globe ditch their traditional briefs for a pair of boxer shorts, and Sunspel’s boxers were, and still are, up there with the best.

Sunspel Today

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A Sunspel store in Omotesando Tokyo via Sunspel

Today, Sunspel remains headquartered in Long Eaton, England. The company still aims to produce ‘luxury everyday clothing’ using fine fabrics and quality craftsmanship. Some garments are still produced in England, however, a portion of Sunspel’s manufacturing is outsourced to factories in Portugal and Turkey.

Sunspel is available to buy from stockists worldwide and the brand has bricks-and-mortar stores in London, New York, and various prefectures of Japan. The brand has expanded their collections to offer women’s clothing, loungewear, outerwear, and accessories.

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Quality 40 Loopback Jersey via Sunspel

With such minimal designs, material is a key factor and selling point of Sunspel’s offerings. Sunspel has continued to innovate by designing and perfecting fabrics to make their fundamental products stand out. Each fabric that Sunspel develop is given a number and assigned with the prefix of Quality’. As it stands, Sunspel uses the following key fabrics to produce in their collection:

Quality 12 – Dubbed ‘Vintage Wool‘, Quality 12 is a luxury, two-fold Merino wool milled for Sunspel by an Italian woolen mill.

Quality 14 – A breathable, cellular knit cotton fabric designed by Sunspel in the 1930s. This fabric is used to make underwear and was initially woven on traditional lace machines of Nottingham.

Quality 30 – Sunpel’s bespoke Pique fabric made from 100% Pima cotton.

Quality 40 – Created in 2011, Quality 40 is Sunspel’s own loopback jersey woven tightly from extremely fine cotton yarns.

Quality 75 – The aforementioned warp-knit cotton designed by Sunspel in the 1950s for the production of lightweight, breathable polo shirts suitable for hot weather.

Quality 82 – A fine cotton Jersey created from a long-staple cotton that is handpicked so only the best fibers are selected. Quality 82 is used to make Sunspel’s iconic white t-shirts.

Cellulock – Knitted in England, Cellulock is Sunspel’s most recent invention. Cellulock is a double-faced jersey, consisting of a ribbed layer and a cellular layer. Both layers of the jersey are ‘locked’ together during the knitting process, forming a mid-weight fabric ideal for year-round garments.

Sunspel-Brand-Profile-History,-Philosophy,-and-Iconic-Products-A-close-up-of-Sunspel's-Quality-30-Pique-fabric.

A close-up of Sunspel’s Quality 30 Pique fabric.

Iconic products

Men’s Classic Cotton T-shirt

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As fundamental as it gets, the classic Sunspel t-shirt is a fine example of the plain white tee. Barely changed since the 1950s, Sunspel constructs this staple from 100% Pima cotton in their Long Eaton factory. Dubbed ‘the perfect t-shirt’ by Sunspel, the Classic Cotton T-shirt features no unnecessary details and is finished with a branded neck label.

Available for $90 at Sunspel.

Riviera Polo shirt

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Sunspel has been making polo shirts since the 1950s and the Riviera Polo Shirt has become their most iconic style since it was tailored for Daniel Craig for his performance as James Bond. Cut from the aforementioned Quality 75 warp-knit fabric, the Riviera is a lightweight, breathable polo shirt with a soft hand. Coming in a slim fit, the Riviera features a chest pocket and a minimal, two-button placket with tonal buttons.

Available for $135 at Sunspel.

Cotton Poplin Boxer Short

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Introduced to the U.K. by Sunspel in 1947, the  Sunspel cotton boxer short remains relatively unchanged to this very day. Each pair is cut from 100% long staple fine cotton and features flat-locked seams for extra comfort.

Available for $50 at Sunspel.