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Clothing the Armed Forces:
The Great Western Garment Company during WWII

By Catherine C. Cole

The federal government took more than 25,000 photographs of home front activities to encourage support of the war effort. A series of photographs shows the production of uniforms at the GWG factory. Photographer: Harry Rowed; Credit: Library and Archives Canada, WRM 1768. Edmonton's Great Western Garment Company (GWG) played an important role during the Second World War, producing up to 25,000 pieces of Women checking sizes of military uniforms at the GWG factory. Photographer: Harry Rowed; Credit: Library and Archives Canada, WRM 1763. military clothing a week for the armed forces, prisoner-of-war uniforms, and military uniforms for other countries. At the outbreak of the war, GWG was reputed to be the largest garment manufacturing company in the British Empire. Two-thirds of the plant's production was soon dedicated to government contracts.

A staff photo taken outside the plant in 1941 to commemorate GWG's 30th anniversary illustrates the size, gender balance, and composition of the workforce. Credit: Housez Studios, Courtesy: Helen Allen. Photo appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 1942. Since 1911, Great Western Garment had built its business and reputation on high quality workwear and fair labour practices, a combination that was essential to its success in securing government contracts in both the First and Second World Wars, more than $4 million in total by 1945: army combinations, khaki shorts and shirts, khaki battle dress uniforms, pants for the army, the R.C.A.F., and the navy, ground crew combinations, uniforms for explosive workers, etc.

White cotton Royal Canadian Navy Khaki Pacific Coast Militia Regiment WWII uniform jacket manufactured by the Great Western Garment Company. Credit: Royal Alberta Museum Prisoner-of-war uniforms manufactured by GWG for use in the camps in southern Alberta. Credit: Galt Museum & Archives.

Assembly line production

Clarence Jacox became General Manager of GWG in 1931 and President and Managing Director ten years later, a position he held until his death in 1958. Jacox was well respected by both unionised workers and his management team. He served on the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, the National Garment Manufacturers' Association, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, and the Chamber of Commerce. Portrait by Alfred Blyth, January 1945, appears in GWG's 1945 Almanac. Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Bl.872. Clarence D. Jacox became president after founder Charles A. Graham died in December 1940. Jacox hired efficiency experts to divide sewing operations into many different steps and teach operators how to complete each one. Some operators were trained on two machines so they could fill in for others when necessary; however the union prevented them from learning too many operations because under the piecework system they could earn more by perfecting one operation.

Effie Hobden who worked there in 1943, remembers,

Ellen Cox making white shorts for the Netherlands military forces. Photographer: Alfred Blyth, Edmonton Journal, April 18, 1942. Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Bl1163.1. The whole floor was on its best behaviour when we were told that an efficiency expert was coming that day to pass judgement on the operation. We all sat sewing away, as we watched his progress around the room, accompanied by the manager.

Suddenly he stopped at the machine next to mine, which was operated by a very pretty girl, who was always very cheerful, even though she had a disabled husband whom she was supporting. The efficiency expert kept asking her questions, which she answered politely, as he lingered on. Suddenly she looked up with her big blue eyes and said innocently, 'Sir, I think it is so-o kind of you to take the time to tell us how to sew.' The fellow turned scarlet up to the roots of his hair and left rather hurriedly, probably quite conscious of the muffled giggles behind his retreating back.

In 1942, Great Western Garment built a $125,000, Expansion to the Great Western Garment factory on 97th Street and 103 Avenue. Photographer: Alfred Blyth. Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Bl841.8. two-storey addition to the plant at 10305 97th Street, the corner of 97th Street and 103rd Avenue. The company hired an additional 125 workers, predominantly young women, bringing the workforce to 500. With more automated machinery it produced 12,500 uniforms per week. When necessary to complete a contract, two and — at times even three — shifts of operators worked around the clock.

Alfred Francis, Verin Prosser, and Tom Holcroft shipping uniforms to Holland. Photographer: Alfred Blyth, Edmonton Journal, April 18, 1942. Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Bl1163.5. Great Western Garment's wartime production was not limited to the Canadian armed forces. For example, in 1945, Great Western Garment supplied the Netherlands army with military uniforms: 68,000 pairs of combination overalls, 15,000 khaki service trousers, 30,000 overalls for the marines, 65,000 flannel shirts and 35,000 white drill shorts for the air force.

Essential wartime service

Women cutters relax on the rooftop of the plant during a break. Left to right: Jean ____, Ellen Klapstein (née Cox), and Beulah Williams (née Nelson). Courtesy: Beulah Williams. In the garment manufacturing industry, normally women were sewing machine operators, pressers and office workers. Men were tailors, cutters, packers, mechanics and salesmen. However, during the war, in addition to working as operators, women replaced some of the young men from the plant who enlisted in the armed forces. In 1942, presser Beulah Williams (née Nelson) was one of three women offered the opportunity to become a cutter. Cutting provided better pay, hourly wages rather than piecework, more variety, and more respect within the plant. When the women moved to the cutting floor, the plant's tailor made them each two pairs of pants to wear on the job, so they could dress like men while doing men's work. However, when the war ended and men returned to GWG, the women were expected to return to their former positions as operators, Nelson married and chose to leave the plant.

The contribution of workers at the plant to the war effort was a source of pride for the community at the time. An article in the Edmonton Bulletin, February 4, 1942, noted that "Thousands of Canadian women are fighting Hitler with needles!" Women working at GWG could not quit their jobs during the war without a valid reason because their work was considered to be an essential wartime service. However, marriage and childbirth often interrupted their working lives. If they did not have family members able to help, employees had difficulty finding adequate child care so GWG supported a request that the City provide child care.

In 1943, Emily Ross became the UGWA organiser for Western Canada. She assisted Local 120 in its negotiations with management concerning wages, working conditions, modifications to the piecework system, and grievances, and promoted the use of the union label and solidarity with other unions. In 1954, she became a member of the UGWA General Executive in New York and was the only woman international representative of the American Federation of Labor in Canada. Credit: UGWA publication, Local 120 Collection, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Workers at the plant had taken a wage reduction in the early years of the war. Yet, the company had profited significantly from the war. In 1943, after unsuccessful negotiations at the plant and provincial levels, Local 120 U.G.W.A. President Emily Ross, and Edmonton Trades and Labour Council representative Carl Berg, appealed to the National War Labour Board and operators' rates were restored to pre-war levels, an increase of 10%.


<em>The Country Guide</em>, August 1943, p. 2. Credit: Royal Alberta Museum The demands of government contracts, and limited availability of civilian cloth, restricted Great Western Garment's production of its signature brands, Cowboy Kings, Red Strap, Iron Man, Buckskin, Snobak denim, and Texas Ranger. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board governed style changes and price ceilings. Cotton was required for military supplies. GWG had difficulty buying enough material to fill its orders for work clothes, consequently consumers had difficulty finding replacement clothing. Great Western Garment continued to advertise in farm magazines in order to maintain loyalty among its customers and retailers. Advertisements in The Country Guide from 1943 note: "Merchants who are unable to buy stocks of G.W.G. goods, because of scarcity of supply or lack of established quota, should plan to acquire this brand for their stores when peace times return again."

<em>The Country Guide</em>, June 1943, p. 2. Credit: Royal Alberta Museum. Great Western Garment promoted the purchase of well-made clothes as a patriotic act: "...buy only what you need — buy the longest-lasting garments you can get — buy a quality brand." The company acknowledged the critical role of farm families during the war: "All farm families in Western Canada are fighting a tough battle — a battle to increase food production in spite of a shortage of help. As good Canadians they know that to work, to fight, to sacrifice is the price of Victory." Shortages did not end as soon as the war was over. In 1946, GWG ads noted, "They're still a little scarce, but they're worth waiting for."

Supporting the war effort

The union and workers at the plant supported the war effort by buying Victory Bonds In 1943, Local 120 UGWA entered a float in the May Day parade which challenged workers in other companies to match its subscription to the 5th Victory Loan campaign-17% of payroll. Photographer: Alfred Blyth. Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta Bl732.1. and sending money to workers serving overseas at Christmas, and cigarettes to the boys at Easter. Passwords at union meetings were occasionally war-related: "Onward to Victory". One woman mentioned putting her name and address in a uniform pocket thinking the soldier who was issued it might like someone to communicate with, but the note was caught before it left the plant and she was told not to do that again.


Great Western Garment expanded its plant, upgraded machinery, and increased its workforce significantly during the Second World War, producing more than $4 million worth of military clothing. When the war was over, GWG had to create a new market for its goods. The company expanded its product line beyond men and boys' workwear into fashion jeans, pants, tops and clothing for the whole family with distribution throughout Canada.

Catherine C. Cole is an Edmonton-based heritage consultant who is currently working with the Royal Alberta Museum, the Provincial Archives of Alberta, the Alberta Labour History Institute and DActive on the development of a virtual exhibition about the history of GWG that will be launched in 2009.

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