Textiles made in Canada: the archives of the Dominion Textile Company

By Jennifer Anderson and Dalton Campbell

Archives can reveal the details of Canadians’ everyday work lives, suggest to contemporary researchers what earlier generations experienced in the workplace, and show how the Canadian economy has changed over time. A case in point: the extensive photographs in the collections of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) related to the production and marketing of Canadian-made textiles. Many of these photographs have been digitized and are available through the LAC collection search.

A colour photograph of five packages of Texmade sheets, in different colours and styles.

A promotional photograph for Texmade products, a Dominion Textile brand (e011201409)

For generations, the Dominion Textile Company was synonymous with Canadian-made cotton textiles. Established in 1905 through a merger of four independent textile firms, Dominion Textile originally operated 11 mills, producing primarily griege cotton and finished cotton cloth for Canadian markets. As the company consolidated its position, it began to expand its reach in the textile industry and across the country. The firm’s headquarters were in Montréal, Quebec.

When the first textile companies were founded, the majority of Canadians were making their own clothing. According to Serge Gaudreau, the textile industry, like the railroad, was a visible symbol of Canada’s modernity at the beginning of the 20th century, a complex industry that combined human labour with machinery. Facing competition from the United States and the United Kingdom, Canadian companies were given tax breaks under Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s National Policy, allowing the Canadian textile mills to make headway in the competitive 1870s market.

In the textile industry, race/ethnicity, gender and class had relevance. As was commonplace in the Quebec manufacturing sector in those days, the workforce that carried the industry into the new era was largely Francophone and Irish, with English-speaking managers. The cotton itself would likely have been sourced in the United States, and the photographs do include some American mills.

Textile mills in Canada relied on a very high percentage of female workers, as Gail Cuthbert Brandt has shown in Through the Mill: Girls and Women in the Quebec Cotton Textile Industry, 1881–1951 and Joy Parr in The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880–1950.

A black-and-white photograph showing men and women posed in a factory with large machines in the foreground.

Seven male and three female factory workers posed behind machinery, ca. 1895, Magog, Quebec (e011213545)

Dominion Textile maintained its own archives before transferring the documents to LAC. The archival fonds includes a rich collection of photographs, textual records and audiovisual recordings documenting the work life and community of employees, the architecture of mills in diverse locations, the process of textile fabrication, and the finished products. Like many company towns, the cotton mills organized sports teams, whose legacy lives on in the archives.

A black-and-white matted photograph of a soccer team, with the players in striped jerseys and the coaches in suits.

Montmorency Association Football Club soccer league champions, 1915, Montmorency, Quebec (e011213574)

The collection contains the administrative and operational records of the parent company as well as minute books and financial records of 62 other firms associated with Dominion Textile. These firms include the original four predecessor companies that merged in 1905, subsidiary companies and the independent textile companies acquired by Dominion Textile as it expanded to become Canada’s largest textile firm.

For some fabric companies, the Dominion Textile merger was a necessity. Montmorency Cotton Mills, established in 1898, produced a variety of products (grey cloth, hosiery yarns, towelling, sheeting and flannels) for domestic and international markets. The company was forced into the merger in part because of the effects on international trade caused by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Montmorency mills remained operational well into the 1980s. The archival photographs at LAC illustrate the mill’s longevity and the powerful waterfall that produced energy for its operations.

A black-and-white aerial photograph showing a factory beside a river, with a large waterfall in the background.

Dominion Textile Limited, 1925, Montmorency, Quebec (e011213592)

In 1929, as part of a larger acquisition, Dominion Textile also acquired what would be called the Sherbrooke Cotton Company. The acquisition included the stock of the Sherbrooke Housing Company, which sought to build a model city for the mill’s employees. The plant, retooled to manufacture synthetic fibres in 1935, continued to operate until the 1990s.

A page from a binder featuring a colour aerial photograph of a factory in a town, near a river, with statistics printed below the photograph.

Sherbrooke Fabrics, ca. 1980, Sherbrooke, Quebec (e011213596)

Penman Manufacturing Company, first incorporated in 1882, dates back to 1868, when its first knitted goods factory opened. Under John Penman, the company became the largest knitting firm in Canada when it assumed control of six smaller knitting mills in Port Dover, Paris and other towns in Ontario and Quebec.

In 1906, the company was acquired by Dominion Textile and reorganized under the name Penmans Limited. The company continued to expand, producing hosiery, underwear and other knitted goods.

A page from a binder featuring a colour aerial photograph of a factory with a chimney near the centre, surrounded by trees and a town, with statistics below the photograph.

Penmans plant, ca. 1980, Paris, Ontario (e011213581)

The Dominion Textile photographs depict mills in towns and cities across central and eastern Canada, representing the close proximity between factory buildings and the local community and workforce. They are complemented by archival material in other collections at LAC.

The material also shows changes to technology as well as health and safety protections in the workplace, and it reflects the industry’s evolution.

A black-and-white photograph of two women standing and operating devices in a laboratory, with machinery and a large window in the background, and pipes and fluorescent lighting overhead.

Testing laboratory, ca. 1945, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (e011213547)

A black-and-white photograph of a man wearing jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt monitoring a spooling machine.

A worker monitors a spooling machine at Long Sault Fabrics, 1984 (e011213534)

The archival collection also includes textual records related to the negotiation of the 1987 free trade agreement with the United States, and the expected impact on the textile industry.

The collection shows that the marketing of Canadian-made fashion was also about cultural diplomacy and international trade. Over the years, economic pressures, market competition and difficult work conditions often led to restructuring and downsizing, which met resistance from the workforce. The collection includes images related to strikes and labour unrest at the textile mills.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people marching in the street, carrying a banner that reads “Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Textile, CSD [Centrale des syndicats démocratiques], Usine de Montmorency” [Textile workers, CSD (Congress of Democratic Trade Unions), Montmorency factory].

Protesters in labour dispute, ca. 1970 (e011213559)

The fonds also includes vibrant promotional imagery and moving images featuring the finished products, which made Dominion Textile quite literally a household name in Canada.

A colour photograph of two women wearing patterned cotton dresses, jackets and headscarves, walking on a runway.

Fashion show, 1986 (e011201412)

We look forward to seeing how researchers will incorporate the recently digitized photographs into new projects on the importance of the textile industry in Canada and further explore the breadth of the resources preserved at LAC. If Reference Services can be of assistance, please reach out to us.

To see more images related to the Dominion Textile Company and textile manufacturing, visit our Flickr album.

Here are some other sources at LAC:

Hamilton Cotton Company fonds

Lennard and Sons Ltd. fonds

Mercury-Chipman Knit Ltd. fonds

Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union: Textile Division fonds

Jacob Lawrence Cohen fonds

Madeleine Parent and Kent Rowley fonds

Margot Trevelyan fonds

Royal Commission on the Textile Industry

Department of Industry records


Jennifer Anderson was an archivist in the Reference Services Division, and Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section, at Library and Archives Canada. The authors wish to thank Kerry O’Neill for her contributions to this blog.

Images of Fashion Plates now on Flickr 

A black-and-white drawing of a woman wearing a gown with a plain skirt edged with five rows of velvet along the hem and a pleated bodice draped like an apron over the front. She is wearing a hat with feathers and carrying an umbrella.

The Charneville Toilette from “Le Moniteur de la Mode” (C-115935k)

Fashion plates, or prints of popular clothing trends, have been available for a long time. However, they really became popular in the 19th century due to advances in printing, increased literacy, and the rise in magazine. Fashion magazines for both women and men discussed etiquette, literature, and new style trends. An ever-growing list of magazines produced their own plates or borrowed from other magazines. Some even included sewing patterns. The plates in this album were taken from magazines published in England (The Lady’s Cabinet), France (Le Bon Ton : Journal des Modes, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Le Moniteur de la Mode, and Le Follet : Courrier des Salons), and the United States (The Season, and Peterson’s Magazine).

A colour plate of a woman in a pink dinner dress with a pleated off-the-shoulder bodice and ruffles along the hem. She is wearing a pearl hair net, and holding a fan in her gloved hand.

“Dinner Dress” from “Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance” (e010863096)

The plates are works of art in their own right. They represent changes in art throughout the century from romanticism to art deco. Producing plates for magazines often involved an artist to draw the image and an engraver to print the plate. Popular magazines were able to hire some of the best illustrators of the day. Some prints were black and white, while the more high quality examples were hand coloured after printing. Printing changed too with the colours becoming more vibrant and the lines more crisp as the technology improved.

A colour plate of a seated women wearing a long cream skirt and a green shirt patterned with cream ovals. The shirt is belted with a red scarf. She is also wearing green high heel shoes, a long pearl necklace, and rings on her fingers.

“Robe d’intérieur” [Indoor dress] from “Journal des Dames et des Modes” (C-115396k)

Many plates were separated from their magazines and are now sold separately to art collectors or other interested buyers. This is probably how they ended up in our collection. Most were found in individual art collections, or in a costume designer’s collection.

A colour plate of two women standing in a living room. One is wearing a blue dress with ruffles at the sleeves and hem. The other is wearing a striped black and grey dress with a long bustle and ruffles at the hem.

Illustrirte Frauen-Zeitung [Women’s fashion illustration] (C-115400k)

Visit the Flickr album now!


 

Guest curator: Vasanthi Pendakur

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC
, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


“Wild” woman of Canada, 1784

A colourful print of a pale woman with blond hair dressed in a yellow dress with green edging, white apron and pink tights. She is also wearing a blue necklace and blue boots.

“Wild” woman of Canada from Mœurs et coutumes des sauvages du Canada, 1784 (MIKAN 3025442)

The images of Canada published by serious travel encyclopaedias are often surprising. This woman seems more European than Indigenous… just look at her blonde hair! Continue reading