How famous cloth made in Kirkcaldy is lasting a generation

Scotland’s only surviving linen factory is based in Kirkcaldy.

Friday, 8th March 2019, 9:23 am
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 5:22 pm
Angus Nicoll, managing director, has been working at Peter Greig & Co Ltd for 35 years. Pic: George McLuskie.
Angus Nicoll, managing director, has been working at Peter Greig & Co Ltd for 35 years. Pic: George McLuskie.

Peter Greig & Co Ltd has been part of the town since 1825, and it continues to innovate.Last month, some of its products were showcased in an exclusive fashion show at Edinburgh Castle.The business continues to weave bespoke linens and natural fibres for the furnishing, industrial and apparel markets from its original site at Victoria Linen Works in St Clair Street.The factory had its materials featured as part of a special tribute to Mary Queen of Scots.Historic Environment Scotland (HES) worked with American fashion designer Jeff Garner, from fashion label Prophetik, to celebrate the original Royal icon at its catwalk show, Women of the Crown, which debuted at the castle and then went on to be part of London Fashion Week.Peter Greig & Co was approached by HES, and the fashion designer came over from the United States to select a range of linens.

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Angus Nicoll, managing director, has been working at Peter Greig & Co Ltd for 35 years. Pic: George McLuskie.

Angus Nicoll, managing director, told the Press the company, which prides itself on its quality, service, design and long history of traditional weaving in Scotland, was delighted to be involved.Mr Nicoll said: “They went through our stock looking at our furnishings, our traditional woven linens and our Dobby designs. “It was a very entertaining evening and it was nice to see some of our products involved in the design of the dresses along with various other Scottish weaving companies.“The highlight for me was seeing the most fantastic dress made out of a cloth we designed for putting on someone’s sofa in 1986! It gave it that old world look and it was impressively designed. It was a really good event.”Before the news of the factory’s role in the exclusive fashion show was revealed, many locals might not have realised the amazing work which has been going on behind closed doors at this understated building for nearly 200 years.At the peak of the linen industry in the early 19th century, there were 15 weaving mills in Kirkcaldy – including Peter Greig & Co – employing 10,000 people.Mr Nicoll has been with the family firm for 35 years.He looked back on how it all began: “In 1825 the yarn was put out to local weavers who had little handlooms in their houses, and they would return the bolts of cloth and be paid for their pieces. “It was all done at home, but with the advent of steam in the late 1800s, everything came into the factory.“Then the handloom fell by the wayside and we had over 120 looms including small shuttle looms, which made for a very noisy environment, but with the advent of steam everything got wider, faster and quieter. There are a lot of micro processes involved now which weren’t used back in the day.”In its heyday, linen thrived across Fife – “Dunfermline was much bigger than Kirkcaldy,” Mr Nicoll said. “It had Hay & Robertson and Erskine Beveridge. “Fife was very dependent on coal and textiles – it was huge. The industry absolutely peaked before World War One. Then things declined between the wars and there has been a slow gradual drop since then.”Today the factory employs 40 staff and there are 30 looms at the town site with 25,000 metres of linen being produced each week.The firm does a broad mix of trade in the UK and also exports its products globally in the USA, Europe and the Far East. Mr Nicoll continued: “We do industrial cloths that are used for scenery canvases, scrims in rug hooks or embroidery.“Some of our stuff is also used in ballet shoes, to protect dancers’ toes. “We also do furnishings, which is our main line, so curtains and upholstery, sofa covers, and apparel, which is shirts or jackets and linen, custom-woven wool and state Tweeds.”Some of the firm’s products have also featured in Hollywood blockbusters: “We have had cloths in Harry Potter films and Pirates of the Carribean – I try to look out for them when I am watching the films! “For one of the Harry Potter films, we had a big debate about colour – about two shades of black that were going into a caped cloak, but in the end it was so dark you couldn’t see anything! It is very entertaining to do that sort of thing but it’s not really a bread and butter item.”Peter Greig & Co has been in Angus’ family since 1911 with both sides of his parental line involved in textiles. His father worked for Robert Stocks and Wemyss Honeyman which had a lot of business concerns in Kirkcaldy, Dundee and Freuchie. Then he left and went to Frances Webster in Arbroath, which was spinners of linen yarn and weavers of heavy tarpaulins. Mr Nicoll’s maternal grandfather Angus Robertson, son of Sir William Robertson, had the Hay Robertson factory in Dunfermline which at its height employed 1500 people.The Peter Greig factory was bought by Mr Nicoll’s grandfather in 1911.So when asked what the secret is to the Kirkcaldy linen factory surviving in a tough industry for nearly two centuries when other firms have closed, Mr Nicoll believes you can’t put a price on quality items which last.He said: “A bit of sheer determination, hard work and being driven on by feelings of tradition and all of that because it is a tough industry. But it’s lovely to actually make something – it gets right into your blood and becomes a vocation.”He added: “It’s a tough game with cheap imports left right and centre, but if people want to buy top quality products that don’t need replaced every year they will find it here.“We build cloth that lasts a generation.”

Inspection and mending work going on inside the factory in 1950. Pic: Peter Greig & Co.
Staff at work in the factory in October 1950. Pic: Peter Greig & Co.
A staff member doing drawing in work in 1950. Pic: Peter Greig & Co.
A staff member hard at work on site at the Victorian Linen Works. Pic: George McLuskie.
A staff member at work in the present day at Peter Greig & Co in Kirkcaldy. Pic: George McLuskie.
A staff member at work in the present day at Peter Greig & Co in Kirkcaldy. Pic: George McLuskie.