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 artefacts 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!
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 menswear, 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.