Nurturing the practice of locally made
WENDY ELLIOTT email@example.com @KingsNSnews
Back when I was a cub reporter at the Hants Journal, I was sent over to the Windsor Wear factory for a photo op. Walking in, I thought I'd time travelled back to the era of Charles Dickens. I recall loud clanging machinery and rows of women bent over T-shirt material. Actually, Dickens was long dead by the time the brick red cotton mill was built in 1884, but the working conditions hadn't vastly improved. In the 1880s, a widow with five children, one still a toddler, took on a job in the factory to support her children. The hours were from 6:30 a.m. to six at night, with a half-day holiday to clean her looms on Saturday. Nights were spent washing, cleaning and baking. The mill kept going, and, eventually, the workers were unionized. Documentary photographer Dick Groot wrote that in the 1960s, serious competition from Asia and other low-wage countries began to change the economics of buying locally made clothing. As Nova Scotia Textiles, the plant began producing sportswear for Roots Canada. Then, in 2003, Roots could no longer compete in its markets without outsourcing manufacturing to lower-wage countries. Anyone who drives Highway 101 knows the sad fate that has befallen the Windsor Wear plant. It's kind of the same for consumers who want to purchase Canadian-made clothing. We're stuck buying shirts and jackets made in Asia by workers labouring 12 hours a day because that's mostly what's on sale. Reading labels, it's the same if you shop at Frenchy's. Brand names we all know, like Roots and Lululemon, outsource the sewing. Reading an article in Maclean's this past summer, I learned that 20 years ago, China joined the World Trade Organization. That move gave consumers greater access to less-expensive Chinese goods. In 2005, the Canadian government made imports of clothing free. That was the birth of “fast fashion” and a death knell for locally made garments. It is exploited labour that makes for $15 T-shirts. So it's no wonder some rethinking is going on these days. Take Patricia Bishop of Taproot Farm in Port Williams, for example. She found a passion for growing flax and making linen over a decade ago. The Taproot Fibre Lab now sells linen and wool while nurturing the practice of locally made. Focused that way, Bishop went from thinking about local food to, “why am I not thinking about more things than just food when it comes to what our land can provide for us? “I dream that we will be able to grow crops that will make great clothes and that all the people who have the skills required to go from seeds, all the way to shirts, w ill be honoured and respected and have meaningful work in rural communities like the Annapolis Valley.” She's been making that dream a reality. Pam Matheson uses her creativity to design Esmé clothing for women keen on original jackets and blouses. Walking into her shop in Canning is like entering a jewelry store; the fabrics she uses have such pizzazz. Matheson employs three first-rate seamstresses part-time who allow her to ward off mass-produced, “cheap and cheerful,” throwaway clothing. In the beginning, about a decade ago, she says, “I craved quality and originality, and that's what I was determined to accomplish. I spent almost two years designing and developing a garment called the Esmé Original Jacket.” All of Matheson's patterns are simple — the fabrics make the statement, and they speak volumes. Back when we could travel, she purchased fabric from around the world in places like Mumbai, India Iand, when possible, she hopes to search again for special material in small quantities. “Sometimes, I only buy enough for one, which makes it even more special — it's original. I call the clothing “limited editions” — because once sold, they're gone forever.” Proud to be able to say “Made in Canada” on her clothing label, Matheson believes when buying from a Canadian designer/maker, “a woman is purchasing much more than just a garment. She's buying hundreds of hours of work, many challenging and sometimes frustrating moments and a great deal of satisfaction.” This past summer, Matheson enjoyed a visit from a French couple visiting the Valley. They bought four of her pieces and told her the designs were “tres elegant.” She loved that comment because her aim is unique and comfortable. Generally, her jacket designs hug a woman's body and are topped by a stand-up collar. This fall, she expanded her repertoire with a signature piece of pandemic wear called the “slouchy.” I hope Santa brings me one for Christmas. Last week, Matheson spent three days at a big craft show in Bedford. She and the friend helping her with the booth switched jackets every 20 minutes to showcase the wide Esmé selection. In December, she promises a sale weekend in Canning. Visit her website at www. esmejacket.com. Former Advertiser and Journal reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.