Monday, May 6, 2013

The Rag Trade..............

I'm not just a blogger.
John and I also have a fabric business - we represent European textile mills for the North American market.
It was a great business for a long time.....................until China took over the market and customers now, for the most part, " knock off " European patterns and have their clothing lines produced in China.

Montreal was Canada's equivalent to the U.S.'s Manhattan for the " schmatta " or " rag trade " as it used to be known in the industry.  The ironic thing is, it was called the rag trade when clothing was actually being produced in North America - when quality control meant something - when people took pride in the finished product - when a small piece of fabric sewn into the interior of a garment stating " made in Canada " or in your case " Made in the USA "  was a " given ",
Now that it's made in China or India -  and is clearly inferior ( in most cases - certainly not in all - but it's safe to say in most ) it's the Textile Industry.
I loved everything about this industry..............from the bolts of fabric to the design rooms - from the cutting rooms to the sewing tables.............but mostly I loved the atmosphere in the factories. In Montreal it was mostly Italian first generations that ran the factories and these people had such a sense of pride in the work they did.
They sang, they hummed, they screamed, they fought and they laughed. A lot.  They brought life to the old brick buildings that housed them.  They sat at their machines from 7.30 in the morning until 4.30 in the afternoon - making beautiful garments.  And through their efforts they bought homes - educated their children and took trips back to Italy. Often.  These people were the back bone of an amazing fast paced energized thriving industry.
I would sit in the office sometimes giggling away at their antics - as they forced home made delicious meals upon the young office staff.
Most of these companies were owned by 2nd and 3rd generation families - Jewish families - that started off as a tailor working from his cold water flat here in the city - fleeing from a war torn Europe - they worked until they were able to bring their families over - they worked until they were able to build their businesses up,  they hired hundreds of thousands of immigrants and were a real force in this city.
We actually had MILLS in this province - as I know many Southern States did - where North American fabric was made.

I'm in my 50's now - I know that everything changes - it's the way of the world - we must always be evolving  
as a people -  and as a planet - but I also know that some things simply shouldn't.  And that losing this sector was not a good thing.  Not a good thing at all. When hundreds of thousands -  millions actually - are left scrambling around looking for an alternative job because in the the middle of their earning years - their job is made redundant because a factory in India or China was able to to reduce production by 75%.  This is NOT evolution - this is regression.
For me this was the biggest sin committed against the North American people ( of both Countries ).
What built up our middle class was completely wiped out with both our governments standing idly by while companies scrambled to find cheaper methods of production.  This was not a " left " or " right " decision either - both sides of politics share equal blame in this.
Sears almost single handedly destroyed a company I worked at for many years - a 3 generation company - a thriving manufacturer of higher end ladies coats - while I worked there they employed 180 factory employees and well over 200 in total employees - ( and that amount was already almost half of what it had once been )  I took care of payroll and watched over the course of 10 years or so the dwindling names on my weekly list.
There were hundreds if not thousands of factories here in Montreal - and these were not the sweatshops of the old days - these were Union run clean honest factories that filled a social need of keeping people EMPLOYED.  Of keeping people with enough earning power to keep the rest of the spokes in the wheel keep a city - a province - a country - a continent with a strong middle class base.

The company I worked at was forced to close it's doors - it just couldn't compete - and could not offer the same high quality by having the coats imported.  After 80 years - 3 generations - and a reputation as one of the best in North America - the doors closed - and the building now houses condos.  I watched as one by one people lined up to receive their last pay cheques - tears in their eyes taking them - tears in my eyes giving them - tears in the bosses eyes as they shook hands with them and thanked each one individually for the work they had done over the years.

This was a good thing?

I personally chose to not shop at Sears - I personally chose to boycott Walmart's - but at this stage I'd be walking around naked if I boycotted every business who prefers to resort to slave labor.  ( and I'd be driving around in a horse and buggy ) You simply can't beat a dead horse I suppose -

And you most certainly cannot beat a dead employee now can you?
After all at 14 cents an hour they're not such a great loss?
Even when it's 400 human beings - they can most definitely be replaced can't they?
Have a look at progress folks........................

Heartbreaking - on too many levels,
And it will fall into the archives of yesterday's news before we know it.
For 14 cents an hour.


  1. Our textiles trade is pretty much dead here too, it's a disgrace and this poor people. Terrible

  2. That is a powerful, heartwrenching post, Suzan. In the name of 'free trade,' we have lost so much. Why were we fooled into thinking that it would be a level playing field?? How could it possibly be, when our country (and yours) had standards which had to be rigidly adhered to, while other countries did not, while other countries used slave labor and we had at least a minimum wage. I remember when Chinese goods first came on the market at our local clothing department store. We refused to buy them. But the problem was, people wanted goods - and as the dollar declined in value, they needed 'more bang for their buck,' so started purchasing the Chinese and other foreign goods. Now they have completely flooded the market. Our dollar is still declining and we will soon be slaves to China, if we're not already.

    Just an odd little side note: The other day I went to the thrift store to hunt for earrings because I knew that the older earrings were likely to be better quality, made in the U.S. And it's true. When I look at the oil lamps I used during the power outage, oil lamps from my parents' generation, compared with the oil lamps one might find from Walmart, it's just a joke. Things used to be made with pride in our country and made to quality standards. It is shameful that we've sold our soul for a 'better' standard of living, which, in reality, it is not. We just live in cheap homes full of cheap junk. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Suzan.

  3. And it keeps getting worse. There are not enough people willing to stand up and try to find products made here. Most people don't even think about, or care. Walmart is destroying this country with their business practices, and the way they treat their employees and I do not shop there! Awesome article Suzan :)

  4. This is a wonderfully written post, Suzan. People blame the consumer, but it is almost impossible to find clothing, shoes, kitchen appliances, etc. made in Canada, so how can we protest? People don't need to have really cheap clothes. I just got back from Myrtle Beach where they have those huge Beach type stores. T-shirts are $2.99 each. No one needs, nor expects to pay that little for a t-shirt. Let's make quality in Canada and in the U. S., people will pay for it and they will treat the product with more respect and care.

  5. This is a very, very important message. We can take your story of textile production and apply it to many more industries. I could go on and on about this but I will simply say 'thank you' for bringing up the subject.

  6. I think this is a wonderfully appropriately assertive post you've written-maybe it should go verbatim onto Facebook to shoot around the world. Thanks.

  7. this post should be printed in all the national newspapers, it was beautifully written and set the message home, I hate the fact we are forced into buying from Walmart, I refuse to buy in the dollar store, and I didn't know this about sears, now they are on my @#$% list!!

  8. This has been a sore spot with me since I read about a Chinese industry putting melamine in baby formula....which was actually sold in China.... imagine what is going into some of the products? I believe that there are artisans in China who lament being labelled with big business in that country as well..... I also remember an engineer for Proctor and Gamble describing his involvement in a project in China and the lack of quality in the rebar being used in some of the construction.... buildings/high rises that are destined to collapse.....I think that the thing is to look at the quality and price ratio.... I love dishes from Portugal.... Turkey has a great quality of linens.... but all these countries are being impacted by big business and mega corporations who have no affinity to the country where they produce the goods. They squeeze pennies....not to bring goods to the consumer but to build bigger profit margins. We need to support people and companies that still have sense of responsibility to their workers and their clients......

    Thanks for raising your voice.

    1. The thing is that many of these European makers have had no choice but to have their goods produced in China's either that or go out of business.
      It's just awful really

  9. Suzan, this is a very touching post. I may not know a lot about the textile industry, but in overall our country has more "made in China, Pakistan ..." {you name them} products. It affects our own economy, our people, hugely. Shops/companies from all sizes and nature close their doors and whoops! in move these other countries' owners, selling their products to our people, who can barely afford anything much these days as we have millions of unemployed citizens. I get angry at our own country as well, for allowing this to happen, wondering why, how, could they do this to their own people and knowing full well, that most of these cheap products are made by people who can not even afford to buy it themselves. The worst part is that the poor in SA, are being "forced" to buy the cheap goods, because their own jobs had been taken away by these same people. {and the middle class is fast on the same track}

  10. very sad to hear. Tragic to see that people work for that little, but even more disturbing is that people see nothing wrong in paying a human being 14c per hour.

  11. You said it, Suzan! Well written post, and it affects so many industries. I've lost count of the number of businesses that have moved to Mexico because they can pay the workers a fraction of what the standard is here. And that's just in the town near me!
    It was so sad to hear about that building collapsing, so sad.

  12. Dear Suzan - again you have spoken for many of us very eloquently. I've also been in the clothing/sewing business on an individual level for decades. When my children were born (60s/70s) I started doing alterations and mending so I could be at home. I built this into a business over the years that included custom clothing for career women, bridals and home fashions with 6 full and part time employees. At the same time my husband started his remodeling/renovation business in 1968 and built that into a thriving business that grew to employ 8 of 'our' former scouts who were now supporting families of their own. This was in a small town in NH and if your craftsmanship and productivity isn't the very best you can't educate and marry off two kids giving them all the growing up experiences of music, sports, scouts, the rewards of volunteering, etc. Our word and a handshake were the backbone of our businesses. Just about the time we sold our businesses and moved to Florida the economic 'progress' you have blogged about took place. No one wants to pay for my quality work. They just want me to 'turn it up and stitch it'. My name has always been my rep and I don't do inferior work. Brad is the same way - if you want to skip the important underlying steps and products that make the job a joy to live with instead of a nightmare to regret, he will politely decline the job. Maybe it's a good thing we've both recently retired. To watch the world lose something that was so valuable as a person's word, their reputation and their salary is more than sad. While there are people who profit from selling something you and I wouldn't wear (even the quality fabrics are becoming scarce), people who have a tragic life and work for pittance lose their lives and that is more than heartbreaking. I just don't have the right word for it.

  13. Suzan--
    This is the one time I'm glad you're not being funny. My husband has been in the manufacturing industry for his entire career, and he prides himself in making a quality product. His mother worked in the garment industry (ILGWU), putting real hems in well-crafted dresses for a local Jewish-owned business who sewed for some high-end labels. The factory closed in the late-1980s, and she went to work as a cashier at the drugstore for half the amount she made sewing. When we were in NY in February, we stayed in the garment district, and I took a picture of the statue of the old Jewish man, bent over his sewing machine, and I almost cried.
    Even our expensive clothing choices (Talbot's, Coldwater Creek, etc.) are made off-shore. Why? Certainly my mother-in-law would have made a blouse for $15 an hour, with $8 of fabric, that the company could then have turned around and sold for $50, that Talbots could have sold for $100. Everyone could have made a share. Instead, you have folks like the Walton family, where in 2011, six members of the Walton family have the same net worth as the bottom 30% of American families combined.
    We should be ashamed of ourselves.
    I buy made in the US products when I can, but they are harder and harder to find. I make sure when I buy furniture (whether for myself or for resale) that it is made in the US. So many of our local furniture factories have closed because folks want cheap rubberwood crap from Indonesia.
    Thanks for this timely message. Let's start shopping local and buying North America made. It's time to start making stuff again.

  14. Amen, years ago I made the decision to NOT shop at Wal-Mart, and have kept it and my children also. What have we lost as a society because we want to save a buck. We need to decide, do we want a cheap "whatever" or people to have a living wage. Before my Wal-Mart boycott, I tried to find a makeup and a house cleaning product company that did not use animal testing. It's hard to make a stand...and keep it. I agree, in the name of "progress" we have regressed.

    1. But at this point it doesn't even matter what we boycott - everything - almost everything anyway is made in China - or India - I know of some pretty big labels - HIGH fashion design - that have their goods made there also................

  15. Amen! Our US family manufacturing company had to be sold as another US business chose to copy our design and have it made in way we could compete! I don't shop at Walmart because it is document and proven that they use workers in these conditions and for such low wages. As a previous US manufacturer I also know first hand that it is their practice to continually ask all their suppliers to lower prices again, and again, and again, it is never low enough! Like you, I know I can't boycott all companies that practice utilizing workers in such awful situations, but when there is a company that is proven to do so and continues it...they won't get my business.
    US consumers must realize that to buy US goods and to support local businesses, the US consumer is going to have to pay a higher price for goods. I for one would rather pay a higher price so my neighbor has a job...than to buy more products at a cheap price for a China worker to work in such awful conditions for such awful pay.
    So sad on so many levels!

  16. It's so sad. My Uncle and Aunt owned a successful clothing company. They made everything here and sold to Sears, and other stores in that price bracket. They made a great living and employed a lot of people. Then China started undercutting them and they are out of business!

    It is very sad.

  17. THe consumer was taught to buy knockoffs and cheaply. Remember the 70's when wholesale warehouse sales were popping up. The reason that the NA working standards stepped up is because the public demanded it at the turn of the 1900's. Remember the fire in the clothing factory in NY? Cheap prices and labour sadly costs lives. And it is being repeated over and over on other continents now. It's like every country has had its heyday and kick at the can. It's certainly sad and the only answer is to buy with a conscience and be educated about where and how everything we use is being produced. That in itself will be a long never ending education. Thank goodness the small producers are starting to be noticed. They need to all be encouraged and supported by us in our purchasing power. I miss all the industry we had in Canada, from the mills, fish packing plants to pickle makers. All gone. Patty/BC

    1. The Triangle Shirt Co. ( I think it was called ) yes - I thought of it as soon as I heard about this disaster Patty!

  18. It is so true...and so sad. I am trying to buy local whenever I can, to support local businesses, but let me face it- I can't go far with that either- some things are just not affordable if I would want to buy them made locally.

    1. We're not left with much of a choice anymore Emilia!!!

  19. My husband's father used to work in a textile mill in the southern US. So long ago. I had heard about the building that collapsed, but I had no idea there were so many killed. It's a huge tragedy. I hope somehow that something good will come of this. New laws that will take into account the workers, and not the owners. China owns the US and I'm worried that one day the US will be Little China. We're losing this great country.

    thanks Suzan.

    1. I hate to say it Patty, but, we here in Vancouver (BC), are feeling it as well. My 2nd cousin in Los Angeles ask me if it was true that we are getting a lot of orientals here, because, he just watched a show called, "Hongcouver." I was shocked, but, now if you see our downtown core, it's beginning to look that way.

  20. Well said, Suzan! When I was a little girl, my father had to close his pottery because our government entered into a trade deal with Japan that allowed their finished pottery to come into Canada for less than my father could buy the clay. His largest customers were Sears, Eaton's and CN Railway. Sears and Eaton's began to refuse payment to their suppliers until 90 days as a way to offset the cost of buying Canadian. As a family, we suffered greatly because my dad kept paying his employees and not taking any salary himself. Many years later I had two home decor stores that I put my heart and soul into building up. I ordered my product 6 mths in advance and when knock off products began to flood the market I was stuck with goods that could not be sold even at cost. My stores closed and the small towns that they were situated in had their downtown cores collapse as the retailers left, one by one. I try to do my best to buy local, handmade or fair trade products. The best way to offset the higher cost is to simply buy less and take care of what you have. Someone sold us the notion that we need several coats instead of one good one. Someone convinced us to toss out a working coffee maker for one in a different colour or style. We can fight back by refusing to be part of the system of consumerism. You are already fighting back by taking that North American made furniture piece, painting it and turning into today's chic look!

  21. Hi Suzan!!!!!

    Very powerful post!!!

    I totally agree with you!! It's sad to see how the uppers treat their employees. Your right about they are easily replaced. Mankind has no feeling, no empathy towards others. If they can get someone to work for .14cents an hour, why in the world would they pay .50cents an hour to get the same job done. It's greed and power. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Pretty soon the bigwig will lower the wages to .12cents an hour and he will get away with it. How has Fair Trade been better for us? Big companies are now employing people outside North America, who can hardly speak English, to handle their customer care calls. I tried to get a hold of an HP rep to talk to them concerning my sons laptop. It took me 4 to 5 days and about 3 to 4 hours of explaining why I was calling. Finally I said I wanted a rep who was in Canada. Then I was able to sort this out with her.

    These foreigners who get these jobs think they've won the lottery, because over in their country, they weren't paid much at all, until these big companies went there to set up their calling systems.

    The company whose building collapsed will no doubt have another one up and running in a couple of days. It's so sad!!

    It's awful when you work for someone or are in the industry you love and because of decisions that were out of your hands, now, the job that you loved is being snuffed out and put you and your household under great strain. It always seems that those who make these decisions are never affected. They just keep going on with their lives. It's sickening!!!!!

    But, the worst of all is that you gave all your life building a career in this industry that is dying and you have to start over again. It's tough.

    I think of you a lot Suzan and only hope for the best, that somehow it will turn around.

    Take care my good friend!!!!

    (I hope I made sense with my comments)

  22. I think ALL trades are dying in North America Amy - scary scary stuff!

  23. What a powerful post Suzan! Our entire family quit using Sears 20 years ago. I gave up Wal-mart as my only New years resolution and was quite surprised to find that I don't miss either one of them. Sadly the real problem is just plain greed. The love of money is the root of evil. Even more sadly....I don't see it changing. I'm glad you wrote this post. Maybe more people will begin to care, but I worry that our kids don't really know what they are missing these days when everything in their world is made overseas.

  24. What a well, heart-felt written post! Yes, all in the name of progress... I grew up right across the street from several such manufactures in Montreal. In the summer, the windows would be open and you could hear the hum of the machines. The employees would be letting out at 5 o'clock, a lot of them neighbours who worked to support their families. Last time I visited my childhood neighbourhood, the manufactures were being turned into expensive condos... That's how solid these buildings were, not death traps for hundreds. This is so immoral.


  25. I try to buy things made locally as much as I can, but as you wrote, if I don't want to go to work naked (which would be dangerous as I work with teenagers that have raging hormones), I have to buy clothes that are made abroad by people who have awful living conditions and I'm not proud of it.

  26. You barely hit the edge of what's really happening. The rich will always get richer and the poor become more poor by the day. A stand must be made and I applaud your effort. If only more of us would stand together then we might be able to move that huge mountain one spoon full at a time. I'm in, but I fear it will take another revolution to change what all has been done.

    Sure hope Big Brother doesn't put me on their "watch list," it is however what I believe in my heart. I'm past (well almost) menopause but I definitely am paranoid as we all should be. Any of you out there watch the show "Person of Interest?" Think back on the pictures obtained so quickly from the Boston bombing and ask yourself just how farfetched that show really might be......

    Just stating the obvious but most people want to go through their daily lives totally oblivious thinking "oh, that could never happen to me." Statistics state that we are all only about 3 months from not getting a paycheck to poverty. It can and does happen - it happened to me and it can happen to anyone.


    1. I know I barely hit the edge - it's only because I know about this industry - but basically it's every industry that once thrived in North America....................
      We did most definitely once have a bustling Middle Class sector - however it's fast becoming a society of Have's and Have Nots - heartbreaking................
      I don't know the show Person of Interest - but I'm paranoid enough about the government as it is - don't think I want to go there!

  27. Old Crow, you are not paranoid if they are, indeed, after you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, which parallel my own.

    Suzan, thanks for writing about this issue. I agree with a previous poster that your essay should be reprinted for others to read. Maybe you could send it to a magazine or op ed page?

    Here in the NC mountain county where i live, there are empty textile and furniture factories all over. No longer do people manufacture dungarees, underwear, socks, sweaters, fabrics, or furniture. The two prisons at the county line are the job makers now. It's disgusting that we put up with imprisoning our fellow man as a jobs program for the sons and daughters of former factory workers.

    20 years ago we could buy sheets at a discount price here. Some had small defects, but all were USA made. And cotton. But no more. The synthetic sheets now made in foreign countries can cost enough for dinner for eight, but are dreadful to sleep on. And the people who sold the real thing to us are working at low paying jobs or staying home.

    W-M built a temple on a hill that once was a cattle pasture. (The preachers complained that if they wanted to see their congregations on Sunday, they would have to go to W-M). That store meant we lost, among other businesses, two clothing stores and at least three fabric stores. It's all W-M all the time now.

    But I'm happy to report that we have a lot more second hand clothing stores and lots of us brag on the bargains we pick up there, meaning we can often avoid shopping at W-M. Even though many of the clothes are made overseas, at least we are not paying the high prices for the name brands we do buy and W-M doesn't add that much of our cash to their money vault.

    The big hardware store still thrives, and since this is a craft center, there are plenty of people making pottery, glass, weavings, etc., and they do fairly well. Strangely enough the quilt shops seem to do well, even though the foreign fabrics sell at extreme prices that give me a headache. Those that have good jobs are buying the fabric to create their own handmade quilts. Handmade is what so many want now. Quilting might be one of the businesses that offer a decent income for those who love textiles.

    btw, I wish I could still fit in the wool ILGWU jacket I bought in a thrift store when I was younger. It fit way better than any other jacket I ever tried on. Unfortunately, my shoulders aged out larger then they were, so I keep looking for a young woman who would appreciate the workmanship and vintage style as much as I do. I do wear my felt hat made during the war in...of all places....PARIS. even has a feather.....LOL.

    1. Oh Marje - it's just so freaking sad - because I don't believe there's anything anyone can do to stop this horrific wheel from turning - we're all frantically trying to stay on one section of it just to survive!!!
      I feel so badly for this generation - jobs are scarce - life is difficult - just so sad.


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