Meet three ordinary newcomer women who literally helped make Canadian fashion history
By: Alisa Samuel
Published on: October 13 2022
With needle in hand, a variety of newcomer women had contributed to the development of the labour force in old Toronto.
Toronto was originally a place between the Don and Humber rivers where Indigenous tribes traded with one another. After the arrival of French and English settlers, the area expanded into an urban centre that served as the capital of Upper Canada.
In 1834, maps were drawn up of Toronto as a new city. At this time, Toronto’s population started to quickly increase as the city was an entry point for newcomers to Canada. More newcomer workers spurred a fast-growing manufacturing industry. More industry meant employment opportunities, especially for women.
According to research from historian Alanna McKnight, women found not only the ability to financially support their families, but also reason to gain independence through the needle-trades.
What is the needle-trades industry?
Needle-trades is a collective term used to describe jobs in clothing production before sewing machines and factories emerged around the 1900s. Such jobs included anything from dress and hat-making to the selling of trimmings and men’s accessories. Clothing wasn’t really ready-made for purchase in 1800s Canada and America. So, men and women customized clients’ garments by hand-sewing them. Women started sewing at a young age. During the mid 1800s, hundreds of them went on to become dressmakers, milliners, and seamstresses. McKnight explored, among others, the lives of three of these women in her work.
Mary Augusta, the dressmaker
Mary Augusta and her husband Alexander moved to Toronto from Baltimore, Maryland in 1850. The married couple were in their early twenties. Alexander completed his medical training at Trinity College and became Toronto’s second black doctor. Alongside her husband’s professional success, Mary did well for herself, too, as a dressmaker.
A dressmaker in pre-industrial society would own her own shop and hire others to work in it. She was considered a skilled worker because she directly interacted with clients and could fill orders on short notice with the help of her employees.
Through city directories, census, and archived newspapers, McKnight found that Mary operated her business on York Street, between Richmond and Adelaide, close to Toronto’s main shopping district. She used imported patterns from London and Paris to provide her customers with the latest European-inspired fashions.
Nineteenth century Torontonian women, especially those with money and social status, wanted to dress well. Newcomers like Mary would clothe them.
Louise Silverthorn, the milliner
Louise Silverthorn was an English newcomer who became a milliner (person who makes and sells women’s hats) and dressmaker in Toronto. McKnight says “she first appeared in available Toronto city directories in 1859” as a 31-year-old widow. She had no children, never remarried, and lived alone on King Street. Most dressmaking establishments centred around King Street, between Yonge and Bay.
Though Louise didn’t have a family of her own, she was a recognized business owner with four labourers: one male and three females.
Mary McKnight, the seamstress
Mary McKnight was an Irish immigrant. Most Irish immigrants to Toronto became seamstresses. In 1861, a 26-year-old Mary was documented as a seamstress in the census. She, unlike Louise, lived in a boarding school-type house with 22 other people. The house was headed by a schoolteacher who lived there with his family.
Seamstresses were, to quote, “unskilled,” because their lives weren’t as free and glamourous as those of dressmakers. Seamstresses would basically sell their skills to employers, labour away at home, and earn low wages. But even so, Mary’s technical experience meant that she could use her sewing skills meaningfully to do everyday clothing repair for the 16 boys she was living with.
The legacy of the 19th century female workforce in Toronto
Immigration to Canada opened up in the 1870s and 1880s. People from beyond the UK started arriving to Toronto. In particular, those of Jewish background from Eastern Europe nurtured the needle-trades with their talent and work ethic. Factory work increased in the city, and with it, at-home assignments for needle workers. Thousands of newcomer women were now working either as labourers or businesswomen, necessitating the kind of unions we know today. These unions fought for safe working conditions and reasonable work hours.
Newcomer women in Toronto’s needle-trades looked beyond their circumstances towards the opportunities around them. They listened to the demands of their new local culture and believed they could be of service to it—so much so that they helped develop the early Canadian economy and unintentionally called the country’s fashion scene to thrive.