Fleming, Reid and Co. Ltd, Greenock

The business of Fleming, Reid and Co. Ltd provides a rare example of a nineteenth century spinning company that expanded into both hosiery production and retail. Its retail network of Scotch Wool and Hosiery Stores stretched across the UK and sold the company’s knitting wools, patterns and knitted products. Despite merging with Coats Paton in the 1960s, the company struggled to compete with cheaper foreign imports and consumers abandoning specialist high street shops for department stores and catalogue shopping. The company finally closed in 1981.

Photograph of a page from a knitting pattern book with an illustration of the garment and instructions on how to knit it.
Page from Knitting and Crochet pattern booklet published by Fleming, Reid, c.1927 (Private collection)

Nineteenth Century Production

In 1840, John Fleming and James Reid built a spinning mill in Greenock to exploit the local water supply as a power source. The mill spun various types of worsted and woollen yarn and was involved in all stages of wool processing, from preparing the unwashed fleece to carding, drafting and finally spinning. In 1881, the company expanded its range to include hand-knitting wools, and the success of this product prompted it to open its first local shop in Greenock to stock and sell it. Improvements to knitting machinery in the late nineteenth century encouraged the company to expand into the production of stockings and eventually knitted underwear and outerwear.

Illustration of the large mill buildings.
Fleming, Reid and Co. Ltd, Greenock


Fleming, Reid’s decision to enter retail was an audacious move for a spinning company. However, it preferred the flexibility that direct selling permitted. By the close of the nineteenth century, the company had opened 112 shops in towns and cities across the UK. By the start of the First World War, it had opened 250 shops in total and by the end of World War Two, this number had risen to 420. The company located shops on high streets and close to suburban areas. It often opened several in large cities, London alone boasted 40 Scotch Wool and Hosiery Stores.

Photograph of shop exterior, windows are full of knitted goods.
Scotch Wool and Hosiery Stores branch at 315-317 Sauchiehall St, c.1924 (Image used by permission of Glasgow City Archives)

Spinning and Knitting in Greenock and Dalry

The development and adoption of knitting machinery allowed the company to knit its own products using its own yarn. In the nineteenth century, the company acquired Bridgend Mills in Dalry to expand its spinning and knitting capacity. In 1903, the company built a knitting factory in Greenock, which was electrified in 1912. The company invested in Griswold stocking machines to increase its production of hosiery. And in the 1920s, as knitted outerwear became more popular, the company invested in hand-operated flat bed knitting machines to shape and pattern garment pieces. By 1959, the company employed 1000 women and 150 women in its Greenock factory.

Illustration of a hand operated sock knitting machine.
Griswold Stocking Machine

Merger and Decline

Despite its merger with Coats Paton in the 1960s, the company continued to struggle with competition from other retailers as department stores came to dominate the British high street. In addition to retail competitors, the company also faced competition from low cost imports of knitted products. Although the company closed its factories in 1981, its establishment of a retail network that successfully spanned the UK for almost a century remains a remarkable achievement for a relatively small, independent, Scottish spinning company.