A Stitch In Time! - Winnipeg Jews & the Garment Industry

A STITCH IN TIME! explores the exciting history of the industry and its relation to Winnipeg and its Jewish community. The exhibit also looks at the industry today, and how it has changed since its beginnings at the end of the 19th century. The garment industry has had a notable impact on Winnipeg’s socio-economic and cultural development; and Jews have played a fundamental and determining role in it. The exhibit describes a multidimensional and dynamic Jewish community while reflecting on the community's relation to Canadian society as a whole.

The exhibit is a product of extensive research in the archives of the Jewish Heritage Centre and at other archives, museums, and educational institutions. We have referred to the writing of scholars and to the reminiscences of people in the industry. There is material from interviews with owners, workers, and labour personalities. The story is told by integrating photographs, documents, oral histories, and artifacts to depict a colourful tapestry of personalities, social forces, and technological change. 

This exhibit is not exhaustive. It would have been impossible to refer to every Jewish garment manufacturer or to document the breadth of Jewish involvement in the labour movement. A STITCH IN TIME! is a starting point to pique interest and encourage research into a fascinating history. We urge you to add to our knowledge about the industry by coming to the JHCWC with your stories, photos, and memorabilia.

A STITCH IN TIME! has drawn on the skills of many talented individuals including historian Professor Dan Stone and most notably assistant curator Susan Turner, who also designed the exhibit and its graphic components.

As curator, I came to this initiative with admiration and respect for the rich, complex history of Winnipeg Jewry. I am the son of immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry for and alongside Jews as well as with immigrants from many other countries. Their experiences and reflections have pricked my conscience, and have contributed enormously to my intellectual and emotional development. Thinking of and cherishing them, I have sought to inject into the exhibit the all-important human dimension. I hope I have I succeeded!

Stan Carbone, Exhibit Curator

The Origins of Winnipeg's Garment Industry

The origins of the garment industry can be traced to the Red River Settlement. Warm clothing was essential for surviving the long and bitter winters, and some settlers raised sheep to produce wool. Each member of the family participated in what was the long cycle of garment production that required shearing, teasing, carding, greasing, spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing. With the coming of steamboats on the Red River and the Canadian National Railway's connecting the Settlement to other parts of Canada and the United States, the settlers were able to obtain a diversity of fabrics for various purposes and needs.

By the 1870s, garment production had entered what R. Hastie described as the mercantile phase: tailoring and dressmaking shops had opened, and storekeepers hired tailors, dressmakers, and milliners. Merchants also ordered ready-to-wear clothing as well as fabric and textile for local use. By 1885, Winnipeg had 20 businesses producing men`s wear, dresses, and millinery.

By the 1890s, there was a burgeoning demand for work clothes, especially for farm and railway workers that could not be met from the east. Because this necessitated a more effective system of production and distribution, factories made their appearance. Among the first were M.B. Lee and Company and the Winnipeg Shirt and Overall Company, which was owned and operated by Moses Haid and Harry Steinberg.

Close ethnic associations kept many of the smaller operators afloat, enabling them to exist in a changing economic environment that was quickly giving larger retail chains the upper hand in purchasing arrangements with manufacturers. The Jewish entrepreneurs of the 1920s had one foot in the world of values, traditions, and experiences of the working class and the other foot in the business practices of modern industrial capitalism: they were "in the market place, but not of it." With great determination and a strong work ethic, they were able to navigate a Canadian capitalist system that was evolving from cottage and small shop operations to one caught up and transformed by the exigencies and realities of modern business practices that required faster modes of production because of increased industrialization and mechanization. During this period of flux, where occupations were blurred, a factory owner would draw on methods borrowed from craft experiences while an artisan adopted new techniques to expand his skills and thus reach a broader clientele.

The Garment Business

Large-scale garment production began in Winnipeg about 1890 to supply farmers and railway workers with rough-wear such as overalls, parkas, gloves, and caps, although some office and home wear was also made. An extensive fur industry also developed. From the 1890s until the 1950s, the garment trade depended on simple sewing machines and cutting equipment. The low cost of starting a business allowed ambitious workers to branch out on their own, usually subcontracting for bigger factories, which in time some came to own. Business centred in and around the Exchange District, where empty warehouses could be rented cheaply and lofts subdivided for smaller firms. Wholesalers, salesmen, and distributors travelled through the western provinces to find markets for Winnipeg clothing. Despite a history of anti-semitic attitudes, Eaton's in Winnipeg helped many businesses get started and keep going, because it bought locally, paid promptly, and even advanced money to reliable suppliers.

During this period, Jews owned about half of Winnipeg's garment factories and provided about half the labour force. While common membership in synagogues and landsmanshaft organizations at times moderated demands, at other times workers and employers stridently pursued irreconcilable goals. Their conflicting interests led to labour strife, especially during the Great Depression. In 1935, a measure of stability was achieved when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union sent Sam Herbst to organize unions in all branches of the industry. Strikes disappeared from the scene, and the industry as a whole prospered.

The garment trade grew during World War II as manufacturers made military supplies such as uniforms, parachutes. After the War, growth continued but major changes were occurring with new immigrants replacing Jews on the shop floor. Jewish employers generally continued to run the businesses. Post-war consumerism and urbanization encouraged manufacturers to switch from work clothes to women's and children's clothing and leisurewear such as sweaters and jeans. Semi-automated machines, often purchased with federal help, increased productivity and lowered costs. To help with modernization, the Manitoba Fashion Institute was created in 1971.

Winnipeg products sold throughout North America and across the world, often under labels such as London Fog, Calvin Klein, and Wrangler, and in stores such as Eaton's, The Bay, Bloomingdales, Daytons, and many others. Some firms built new, modern facilities outside the traditional district, while others adapted old buildings to new needs. Some production was organized beyond the perimeter in towns such as St. Malo and Steinbach as well as on aboriginal reserves.

Winnipeg garment manufacturing continued to grow until the tariffs and quotas on imported textiles and clothing were gradually removed beginning in the 1970s, factors contributing to the collapse of local production. As late as 1996, however, there were still 9000 garment. While firms that relied on local manufacturing went out of business, some have done well designing clothing locally, manufacturing it abroad, and bringing it to Winnipeg for distribution. Some have established branch offices around the world to take over aspects of their operations. There is still niche production in Winnipeg, often based on safety regulations and government requirements.

In addition to manufacturing, there is and was much more to the industry. In its heyday, the garment trade provided work for about three times as many salesmen, wholesalers, buyers, and distributors than it did for garment producers. The trade created a Jewish world in which non-Jews often learned a little Yiddish to get along. It provided opportunities for enterprising workers to start and grow in an industry that supplied quality products throughout Canada, North America, and the world. While the industry still exists in 2013 and continues to make a significant contribution to the Manitoba economy, the Jewish garment world has largely disappeared.

Ethnicity & Gender

Since its inception, women and immigrants have been vital to the development of the garment industry. Until the 1940s, the industry had absorbed Jewish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants. Entering into the 1950s women made up 80% of the industry's total work force, and that percentage remained unchanged in the 1980s. In 1982, there were 81 firms with 6,468 workers of whom 82% were women. Approximately 60% of these women came from China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Some also came from Italy, Greece, and Portugal. Beginning in the 1950s, the number of Jewish garment workers decreased dramatically as the children of the early immigrants became university educated and opted for professional and semi-professional careers. A significant number of present-day factory owners are Jewish, though, and may be the second or even third generation in a family to be involved in the business.

By 2004, 94% of all sewing machine operators were women. Skilled or not, women were paid less than men, often earning below what the government had established as the minimum health and decency standard or living wage. Many of the so-called "unskilled" workers were accomplished sewers and tailors in their countries of origin, able to construct complete outfits. In Canada, however, they were introduced to an industrialized factory system that often compartmentalized the work process into single tasked, monotonous routines.

In the late 1960s, the industry worked in tandem with the provincial and federal governments to attract labourers from Italy and the Philippines to fill mostly dead-end or lowly jobs that Canadians would not accept. One of the key recruiters was Meyer Klapman of Peerless Garment, who made three trips to both Italy and the Philippines, which resulted in the hiring of 700 workers. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that about 26% of the approximately 3000 workers hired during the decade were from overseas.

Government involvement was pivotal to the industry's growth in terms of recruitment of overseas labour, productivity, and profits. Subsidies were provided to ensure a climate conducive to growth. These included grants for technology, various loans from the federal and provincial government, wage subsidies, tax shelters, import restrictions (quotas), relaxation of immigration laws, federal and provincial vocational and other training programs, provisions for cheap hydroelectric rates, and reduced or low municipal taxes.

Yet, as Annalee Lepp, David Millar, and Barbara Roberta noted in their 1987 study on Winnipeg's garment industry "very little of these subsidies, from the public purse and therefore from taxpayers' pockets, has trickled down to the workers. If unions or governments demand improved wages and conditions, the bosses threaten that the whole industry will run away. The old sweatshops have been replaced by modern de-skilling and speed-ups. Women, who form the bulk of the work force, have gained little in real wages over the last thirty years. They are largely confined to the low-paid jobs, easily laid off, and easily replaced by new waves of immigrants."

English Ads

In 1945 and 1946, The Jewish Post published supplements comprised of advertisements and articles that dealt with the development and expansion of Winnipeg's garment industry. They appeared shortly after World War II, which had given the industry a significant impetus. The editorial of 1945 notes, "There are now nearly 100 firms in Winnipeg manufacturing in quantity such articles as women's coats and suits, dresses, ladies' wear, trousers, windbreakers and work pants, overalls and work shirts, fine shirts, sportswear, furnishings, suspenders, knitted goods, lingerie, leather goods and novelties, gloves hats, caps and millinery."

The Jewish Post was founded in 1925 by Ben Cohen, a former printer and ad seller with The Israelite Press, to address the cultural and intellectual needs of a growing number of English–speaking Jews. According to Lewis Levendel, Winnipeg lawyer M.J. Finkelstein described Cohen as "the good father of the paper" who had "remarkable energy, an almost bewildering driving force." By the mid-1940s, the paper offered readers a mixture of local, regional and international news as well as business and children's columns. Frederick Fingerote, the paper's first fulltime editor, was among the first Canadian Jewish journalists to report on anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. After the War, the paper published numerous editorials encouraging the Canadian government to relax its immigration laws and admit more Jewish refugees.

In his study on the Winnipeg garment industry from 1900–1955, Gerry Berkowski states that during the War, the industry experienced tremendous growth, so much so that that the city and region were able to compete on equal terms with eastern manufacturers. By 1948, Winnipeg created enough garments to satisfy local needs and to export to eastern markets. Moreover, Winnipeg was the nation's most important manufacturer of overalls and shirts, and made impressive headways in other industry sectors.

Jews were critical to the garment industry in both wholesale manufacturing and retail distribution. The extent of their contribution, especially in relation to their population, was brought to the fore by Louis Rosenberg from information culled from census data for 1941. While Jews made up 7.7% of the population, almost 49% of all men and 21% of all women employed in clothing and textile were Jews while 21% of all women were Jews. In the production of hats and capes, 63% of all men and 49% of all women were Jewish. In hosiery and knit goods, Jews comprised 48% of all men and 36% of all women. In men's and women's furnishings, 40% of all men and 17% of all women were Jews. Of furriers, 53% were Jews. They made up 29% of all wholesale merchants and 33% of all retail merchants in a range of economic activities including the garment industry.

Yiddish Ads

These advertisements were published in Yiddish in The Israelite Press / Dos Yiddishe Vort from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The paper was founded in 1910 as Der Kander Yid/The Canadian Israelite, and by 1913 had changed its name to The Israelite Press; it was the principal newspaper of the Winnipeg Jewish community.

After World War II, it reached a peak circulation of 4,000. Its pages bristled with local, national and international news, and covered topics and issues that satisfied a variety of intellectual needs, literary tastes, and philosophical and political perspectives. It provided a forum for an array of ideological discourse and of values encompassing Zionism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and Judaism interpreted from religious as well as secular points of view. Arthur Chiel noted that The Israelite Press "was a powerful influence in moulding Jewish opinion in Manitoba and western Canada… It spoke boldly, at all times the advocate of Jewish rights, the champion of creative Jewish life on the Canadian scene."

It also provided the community with an understanding of the institutions, organizations, principles, and values that animated and defined Canadian political and civil society.

At the time, Yiddish was spoken by many in the Jewish community. According to the 1931 Government of Canada census, almost 96% of Winnipeg's Jewish population called Yiddish their mother tongue. In the 1941 Census, this had fallen slightly to 90%, yet was a higher percentage than that reported in Montreal, Toronto, or any other Canadian Jewish community. What needs to be taken into consideration, however, is the changing definition of the term "mother tongue." For the 1931 Census, "mother tongue" was defined as "the language of the home whether the person has learned to speak it or not." For the 1941 Census, a language remained a mother tongue "even if one cannot speak it, as long as one understands it."

Recent Developments

In the 1990s, Winnipeg's garment industry continued to grow and prosper, relying predominantly on immigrant labour. By 1995, it was Manitoba's second largest industry. Its fortunes were ensured by the 1974 World Trade Organization's Multifibre Arrangement, which placed quotas on the importation of certain textile and clothing products and thus protected local production. However, with the implementation of the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Textile and Clothing in 1995, quotas were phased out and completely eliminated by 2005 allowing for the influx of cheaper goods from China, India, and other countries. This had a serious impact on Winnipeg's garment industry. Many companies were forced to shut down local plants, lay off workers, and move overseas to meet the competition from countries with lower labour costs, non-unionized working conditions, and minimal or non-existent health and safety standards. Due to the elimination of quotas, the Manitoba Fashion Institute, which served as the industry's representational body and a major training centre for sewing machine operators, was forced in 1995 to close its office.

Job losses in Winnipeg's garment industry have been dramatic. In the 1990s, there were some 9,000 workers employed in 115 companies; by 2005, the number had dropped to 5,000 workers in 90 countries. Particularly hit were sewing machine operators. As Raymond Wiest noted, "it will be largely immigrant garment workers who have felt, and will continue to feel, the effects of the removal of quotas on imported garments. Ironically, most garment manufacturing jobs are being relocated to South Asia, including some of the countries that immigrant workers in Winnipeg originally left to find work here."

In her study Garment Production in Canada: Social and Political Implications, Roxana Ng emphasized the impact of the elimination of quotas, but also identified the shift in control from manufacturers to large retail chains such as Walmart and Superstore. Many of these chains have fragmented garment production by subcontracting work to contractors who hire home-based workers at minimal pay. This is especially the case in ladies' and children's wear, which are subject to seasonal fluctuation and regular changes in fashion. Instead of investing in technology to increase efficiency and productivity, contractors in these sectors draw on cheap, largely female, immigrant labour. This forces Canadian manufacturers to scale down production and reduce their work force.

Selected Sources

  1. Abella, Irving and Harold Troper. None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe (1982)
  2. Benham, Mary Lile. “The Apparel Industry in Winnipeg” (1974)
  3. Berkowski, Gerry. The Winnipeg Garment Industry 1900 - 1955 (1987)
  4. Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1964)
  5. Canadian Jewish Congress Bulletins and Minutes
  6. Chiel, Arthur. The Jews of Manitoba: A Social History (1961)
  7. City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee. The Exchange District (2007)
  8. Frager, Ruth A. Sweatshop Strife. Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto 1900 - 1939 (1992)
  9. Ghorayshi, Parvin. "Manitoba's Clothing Industry in the 1980s: Change and Continuity" (1990)
  10. Giesbrecht, Jodi. "Accommodating Resistance: Unionization, Gender, and Ethnicity in Winnipeg`s Garment Industry, 1929 - 1945" (2010)
  11. Hastie, R.J. "Development of the Apparel Industry in Winnipeg" (1974)
  12. Irma and Marvin Penn Archive of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (photos, documents, oral histories)
  13. Kliman, Lou and Estelle. This Says it All (2013)
  14. Kosatsky, Tom. "Jews in the Clothing Industry in Winnipeg" (1983)
  15. Lepp, Annalee, David Millar, and Barbara Roberts. "Women in the Winnipeg Garment Industry 1950s - 1970s" (1987 )
  16. Levendel, Lewis. A Century of the Canadian Jewish Press: 1880s - 1980s (1989)
  17. Lindsay, Debra. The Clothes off our Back. A History of the ACTWU 459 (1s995)
  18. Mochoruk, James D. and Donna Webber. “Women in the Winnipeg Garment Trade, 1929 - 45” (2007)
  19. Rosenberg, Louis. A Population Study of the Winnipeg Jewish Community (1946)
  20. Stone, Daniel, ed. Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg 1905 - 1960 (2002)
  21. Wiest, Raymond Wiest. ed. “The Winnipeg Garment Industry: Industry Development and Employment” (2005)  
  22. www.ucalgary.ca/-pfitzger/garment. The Garment Industry


STAN CARBONE: exhibit curator, grants writer
SUSAN TURNER: assistant curator, exhibit designer, graphic designer

Exhibit: Production

  • Centiple Printing
  • Costco Kenaston Photo Lab
  • Do-It-Yourself Framing
  • Andrew Lodwick: installation assistance

Lenders to the Exhibit

  • Sharon Raber Allentuck
  • Bill Worb Furs: Bill Worb
  • Marsha Cowan
  • Crown Cap: Paul Leinbur; Cole Leinburd: assistance
  • Shirley Diner
  • Freed & Freed: Marissa Freed
  • Larry Hecht
  • Lou Kliman
  • Manitoba Museum: Nancy Anderson, Andrea Dyck, Roland Sawatzky
  • Mitchell Fabrics: Arnold Leventhal, Paula Mitchell
  • Modern Headwear: Murray Gilfix, Perry Gilfix
  • Cathy Moser
  • Sukie Pitch & Fraya Zaidman
  • Marilyn Raber
  • Raber Glove Manufacturing: Chaim Howard Raber
  • Milton & Sheila Rabinovitch, Estate
  • Richlu Manufacturing: David Rich; Peter Feuerstein, assistance
  • Judy & Louis Rodkin
  • Gary Steiman
  • Ros Usiskin
  • Western Glove Works: Bob Silver
  • Jackie Winestock

Exhibit Volunteers

  • Ricardo ben Nathaniahu
  • Lenore Feldman
  • Pam Goundry
  • Sharon Graham
  • Kim Levi
  • Lorena Surasky

Exhibit Photos & Photography

  • Archives of Manitoba
  • Stan Carbone
  • Irma & Marvin Penn Archive, JHCWC
  • Susan Turner
  • University of Winnipeg Archives, Western Canada Pictorial Index

Evening Program

  • Jerry Augustin: technician
  • Lou Kliman
  • North End Jewish Folk Choir
  • Richlu Manufacturing: co-sponsor
  • Bruce Sarbit
  • Bob Silver
  • Western Glove Works: co-sponsor

JHCWC Staff & Volunteers

  • Ilana Abrams: general manager
  • Ava Block Super: archivist

Programs & Exhibits Committee

  • Terry Cherniack
  • Sid Robinovitch
  • Marvin Samphir
  • Bruce Sarbit
  • Lionel Steiman
  • Dan Stone: chair
  • Chana Thau
  • Myron Turner
  • Susan Turner
  • Ros Usiskin
  • Lilian Zentner
  • Early Discussions
  • Abe Anhang
  • Sid Halpern
  • David Rich
  • Bob Silver
  • Garment Industry Oral History Project
  • Bill Brownstone
  • Marcelo (Celing) Buduhan
  • Sharon Chisvin: interviewer
  • Marsha Cowan
  • Zivey & Rhoda Feldman
  • Marissa Freed
  • Sharon Freed
  • Murray Gilfix
  • Elaine Goldstine
  • Sid Greenstone
  • Sid Halpern
  • Larry Hecht
  • Mickey Hoch
  • Lawton Inglis
  • Daniel Klass
  • Hillaine Kroft
  • Lou Kliman
  • Eric Levi
  • Chaim Peikoff z/l (dec)
  • Mona Rich: interviewer
  • Sid Schwartzman
  • Marvin Shenkarow
  • Morris Shenkarow
  • Michael Silver
  • Gary Steiman
  • Jackie Winestock

Asper Jewish Community Campus

  • Israel Binnun: maintenance
  • Rudolfo Castellanos: maintenance
  • David Kababie: manitenance
  • Connie Masyk: executive assistant
  • Vilma Rodriguez: cleaning


  • Jewish Foundation of Manitoba
  • Joseph Zuken Memorial Association
  • Manitoba Tourism, Culture, Sport, and Consumer Protection
  • Province of Manitoba Heritage Grants Program
  • Winnipeg Foundation