The Origin of Winnipeg’s Garment Industry

‘A Stitch in Time’ Exhibition

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.