The Garment Business
‘A Stitch in Time’ Exhibition
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.