Clothing Industries | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Clothing Industries

Mass production of clothing in Canada began in the mid-19th century in urban centres, which supplied pools of semi-skilled labour and were the major consumer markets.

Clothing Industries

Mass production of clothing in Canada began in the mid-19th century in urban centres, which supplied pools of semi-skilled labour and were the major consumer markets. While clothing is manufactured in all provinces and territories, the industry is concentrated in Montréal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. In recent decades, however, there has been a trend toward firms establishing operations outside major centres and in rural areas.

The Canadian apparel industry supplies a wide range of apparel to domestic consumers and, increasingly, to foreign markets. The industry includes companies that produce consumer, industrial and institutional clothing. They design, draft patterns and cut and sew fabrics, and knit yarns into garments and finish them for sale. The major subsectors include men's, women's and children's clothing, fashion goods, FUR goods, occupational clothing, technical outerwear, survival wear, active wear, foundation garments, tourism-related goods, backpacking and camping products, gloves, hats and caps, hosiery and knitted goods.

Mechanization of clothing manufacture began with the invention of the sewing machine in 1775. Elias Howe obtained patents in the US in 1846. Mass production began during the American Civil War, when large numbers of blue and grey military uniforms were needed to distinguish friend from foe. The increasing sophistication of machines, combined with migration of skilled workers from the US, created a new production industry in Canada.

Custom tailors and seamstresses had produced clothing in Canada from the time of Samuel de Champlain, but when volume production methods were developed in the US they were soon adopted in Canada, and local craftsmen became entrepreneurial employers. Their factories were located in Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg, where they could find IMMIGRANT LABOUR and young local women.

The first apparel company in Canada that did all cutting and sewing on the premises was the men's fine clothing firm Livingstone and Johnston (established Toronto, 1868), later W.R. Johnston & Company. This company later became a subsidiary of Tip Top Tailors of Toronto, now part of Dylex Ltd, a Toronto-based conglomerate operating Canada-wide in both MANUFACTURING and RETAIL.

The union movement in the clothing business dates back to 1911, when the New York-based International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) started a local in Toronto. During the 1920s, as a result of the formation of unions in Toronto, much of the industry moved to Montréal, making that city a major apparel town. Labour relations in the industry were marked by successful mediation and arbitration until 1983 when, for the first time in 49 years, a general strike occurred. Important unions active today in Canada are the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE-SVTI) and La Fédération des Syndicats du Textile et Vêtement (CSD) Inc.

During the 1980s, the clothing industries entered a new HIGH-TECHNOLOGY phase. Numerical- and computer-controlled equipment and ROBOTICS were rapidly introduced into factories. The speed with which factories modernized was directly related to the supply of sewing-machine mechanics and technicians skilled in servicing the sophisticated equipment. A program to train technicians was started at George Brown College, Toronto. Today, alternatives to traditional cutting and sewing methods include LASER or computer-controlled waterjet cutting and microchip-controlled, multiple-head sewing machines.

The Canadian apparel industry plays a key role in the Canadian economy. In 1994, the apparel industry contributed 2.2% of Canada's manufacturing gross domestic product (GDP) and accounted for 5.7% of total manufacturing employment. The relatively high contribution of the apparel industry to total manufacturing employment compared with its contribution to manufacturing GDP reflects the industry's high degree of labour intensity despite the adoption of computer-aided technology in the early stages of the production process.

The Canadian apparel industry is made up of some 2000 firms. In general, the industry has low barriers to entry and continues to be fragmented and very entrepreneurial. The vast majority of Canadian apparel companies are owned by Canadians. Foreign-owned firms account for about 2% of the total. Most foreign-owned firms are controlled by US-based multinational corporations. They tend to be among the larger firms in the industry and concentrate on manufacturing large-volume staple products such as jeans, underwear and foundation garments. Approximately 75% of firms have fewer than 50 employees and account for about 33% of total industry shipments. Firms that specialize in cutting and sewing apparel as contractors account for about 25% of the total number of establishments in the industry. Total employment in the industry, including contracting out and part-time employment, is estimated at more than 100 000 people. About 75% of the workforce are women, and an estimated 50% are newly arrived immigrants. The clothing industry also supports textile mills and retail stores that employ over 200 000 people.

Many sectors of the industry recognize the important role of sophisticated trade associations. The Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF) is the voice of the Canadian apparel industry. Membership in CAF is open to firms based in Canada that manufacture or market Canadian-made apparel or supply goods and services to the industry. Most companies belong to the CAF through provincial organizations, including Apparel British Columbia, the Association of Sewn Alberta Products, the Apparel and Textile Association of Saskatchewan, the Manitoba Fashion Institute, Apparel Ontario, and the Apparel Manufacturers Institute of Québec.

CAF is the industry source for timely information and advice on national and international issues and for discounts on business-related goods and services. It is also the industry representative for national and international promotions and trade issues.

Training programs have been developed and diploma courses in production and design are offered at various community colleges: LaSalle and Polyvalente Pierre, Montréal; George Brown and Seneca, Toronto; and Kwantlen University College, Vancouver. Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto offers degree programs in apparel design and production management, and Kwantlen has a degree program in fashion design and technology. Most of these institutions offer training in computer-based design, drafting, grading, marker making and costing. Continuing education courses are offered at most institutions as well as at Concordia and McGill universities in Montréal and the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Total shipments by the apparel industry have grown from some $5.8 billion in 1992 to $6.7 billion in 1997, an increase of 16%. The Canadian apparel retail market was particularly hard hit by the 1990-91 recession and has yet to recover to pre-recession levels. In 1995, the country's retail market was valued at $15.2 billion, a 4% increase over 1994. In addition to the recession, longer-term changes in demographics, incomes and prices have exerted a negative effect on consumer demand for clothing. These challenges have motivated the apparel industry to change how it operates, moving from an inwardly focused "low-tech" sector to one that now competes internationally. This was achieved by targeting niche markets, adopting innovative marketing, designing original products, implementing new technologies and establishing better relations with suppliers, customers and competitors.

Apparel exports have risen dramatically in recent years, more than doubling in value from 1992 to 1997, when exports reached $1.9 billion. Imports of apparel increased by 37%, rising from $2.9 billion in 1992 to $4 billion in 1997.

The federal government is under constant pressure to limit imports and reduce quotas; at the same time, it must consider how exporting countries will react to Canadian quotas and exports and how this will affect the balance of payments. The textile and clothing industries in Canada rank second to FOOD AND BEVERAGES in the number of employees. Canadian clothing companies are expected to compete with developing nations, but this is very difficult because industrial standards legislation in Canada's producing provinces establishes minimum wages, maximum hours and fringe benefits that are 2-10 times higher than standards in low-wage countries. Because of this, imported clothing - manufactured under conditions that would be illegal in Canada - represents a real threat to the future of Canadian companies.

Over the past quarter-century, the Canadian textiles and apparel industries benefited from significant import protection and adjustment assistance. In the late 1980s, protectionism gave way to trade liberalization and Canada entered into the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 1989 and, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In addition to the phase-out of tariffs under NAFTA, the industries are also facing tariff reductions as a result of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations under the GATT, concluded in 1994. These reductions are occurring in annual increments over a 10-year period beginning 1 January 1995 and will reduce the average tariff for apparel from 25% to 18%. Tariffs on textile fabrics will be reduced from a maximum of 20% to a maximum of 14%. The Uruguay Round Agreement on Textiles and Clothing also provided for the gradual phase-out of quotas on apparel and textiles over a 10-year period beginning 1 January 1995.

Public policy in the textile and apparel industries has also included duty remission programs, which currently cover tailored collar shirts, woven shirting fabrics, blouses and shirts, outerwear apparel and woven outerwear fabrics. These programs are designed to help the most vulnerable subsectors of the apparel industry adjust to increased competition, primarily from low-wage producers.

The textile and apparel industries have benefited from general federal initiatives, such as the Program for Export Market Development (PEMD) and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). As well, they receive assistance from federal regional development agencies and provincial programs.