With Remembrance Day just round the corner, Rosemary Free visits the Lady Haig poppy factory to lend a hand
Armed with a box of 2000 petals, green plastic stems and black studs, I set about my task.
Under the watchful eye of Davie Adamson, I have just been given a crash course in poppy making and I’m expected to get to work straight away.
Placing the stem in a wooden mounting holder, I then carefully place the centre of the shaped petal onto the end of the stem and push on a black stud to keep the flower together... one poppy down – thousands to go.
I make 50 in 15 minutes which would see me meeting the target of around 7000 poppies made by each of the 13-strong green-stemmed poppy team in a week. In total, Lady Haig’s poppy factory in Warriston Road turns out an incredible five million poppies and up to 10,000 wreaths a year.
While you might think production of the little red paper flower would be seasonal work, the factory actually provides year-round employment for 40 disabled ex-servicemen.
And with November 11 almost upon us, most of this year’s orders have already been sent out, allowing the employees to make a start on supplies for 2013.
My first task is to try my hand at green-stemmed poppies. These are the traditional poppies used as a symbol of remembrance of the sacrifices made in past wars.
Rolls of red paper are passed through a special cutting machine which makes the distinctive Scottish four-petal poppy shape and gives them their ribbed edges.
In other parts of the UK, the flowers only have two petals and come with a green leaf. In Scotland the charity prefers to save the extra £15,000 this would cost to put towards supporting veterans.
It is surprisingly relaxing work, and Davie, 56, tells me that once you get into the swing of it, you can do it with your eyes closed.
There is plenty of banter between the men, who range in age from 31 to 75 and have served in the army, navy and airforce, from Aden to Iraq and Afghanistan. At 74, Kenny Kerr is one of the oldest employees. He qualifies for a job in the factory having completed two years of National Service with the Royal Scots.
He started at the poppy factory five years ago. “I retired for three months and couldn’t stand it any longer,” he says. “I had two cleaning jobs and then I came here. The company is great. We all argue with each other and shout at each other. The camaraderie is brilliant.”
At the other end of the age scale, Graham Sorley, 31, is making remembrance crosses, attaching paper poppies to small wooden crosses to which photos or names can be added.
Harry McLaughlin, 69, is making long-stemmed poppies which involves twisting a short stem around a 16-inch wire stem and covering it with green crepe paper. The former Royal Highland Fusilier, who came to work at the factory 11 years ago after suffering a stroke and undergoing a bypass operation, will make 200-300 long-stemmed poppies a day and 21,000 a year.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Stewart Ballantyne, 53, is making stick-on poppies. His target is to make up to 5000 a week.
My next task is to make a wreath. The poppies for the wreaths are made from silk which, like the paper, arrives in large rolls. The material is layered and put into a machine fitted with a template which cuts out 200 poppy shapes at a time.
These shapes are then crimped in one of three machines operated by Colin Richards. This gives the poppy its ribbed pattern and distinguishes it from poppies made elsewhere in the UK.
First, Colin, 47, who was medically discharged from the army in 2009, lays out piles of around 25 or nine grams’ worth of petals. Each batch is then crimped. They come off the crimper hot and are separated and boxed, ready for the next stage. He will crimp around 27,000 flowers a week.
In another part of the factory, I am introduced to Gerry Lindsay, head wreath maker. Having served 22 years with the Gordon Highlanders, he retired on medical grounds and suffers from a range of ailments including angina, diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure.
I am going to make one of the most common types of wreaths – a No. 2 – which consists of a round plastic holder with three rows of poppies around a central badge which can hold the name of a regiment, organisation or school.
Having selected a silk petal, I click it into a hole in the frame using a black stud. First I must complete the central ring, then the outer ring and then the inner top ring. Finally, poppies go into three buttons at the bottom and the last poppy is attached to a remembrance card and put into a button at the top of the wreath.
I find this job a bit more challenging, but the men working on the wreaths will make around 30 a day.
The factory also makes special wreaths with wire frames shaped according to requirement. The National Council or Saltire wreath goes to the City Chambers in Edinburgh as well as the Cenotaph in London, while the Dundee wreath is displayed in the city’s Caird Hall.
My job is done and the factory has been invaded by a group of primary school children in for a tour, but on the way out I have a quick chat with manager Charlie Pelling.
He says that for a business set up to offer employment to disabled ex-servicemen, they are honoured to make something as iconic as the poppy. While currently there are no women in the factory, there is one on the waiting list and they would welcome more inquiries.
Being neither ex-service or disabled, my application would be ruled out. However, at least I have one souvenir from my visit – my first and last-ever homemade poppy.
Capital campaign worth £2.7 million to help forces veterans
• The factory was founded by Lady Haig, wife of the Field Marshal, in 1926 in the Canongate.
• The first poppies were made by two men using paper and scissors.
• In 2011, the Scottish Poppy appeal raised £2.68 million.
• More than 25,000 collection cans are processed during the campaign.
• An army of 10,000 volunteers help distribute five million poppies throughout Scotland.
• The factory has been at its current location in Warriston Road since 1965.
• It is a popular destination for visits from schools, organisations, celebrities and royalty.
• One roll of red paper willl make 74,000 poppies.