Canada Clothing Manufacturers: Ultimate Guide
One of my favorite quotes from a past student who created a Made in Canada clothing brand was, “My supply chain is so Canadian they drink Tim Horton’s (IYKYK) in the factory.” The quote during a live group coaching call literally made me lol as images of maple syrup and poutine crept into my mind. At this moment, I also realized that Canada clothing manufacturers are an often overlooked supply chain option. So I decided to write this post to help anyone that is considering making their products in the great snowy north.
While many larger brands with bloated overhead are forced to move their supply chains overseas for lower prices, and faster turnaround times—smaller fashion startup brands can take advantage of the craftsmanship, quality textiles, and friendly, convenient supply chain that Canada has to offer.
Fashion startups? This Clothing Manufacturers Canada Edition is for you.
BUT BEFORE WE START...
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I've tried).
It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE.
WHAT YOU WILL LEARN:
- You’re in good company: a few global brands that got their start in Canada
- Made-in-Canada vs. Products of Canada
- 3 reasons to use Canadian supply chains
- Niche specializations
- Proven track record
- Highly skilled and reliable labour
- Challenges of making your product in Canada
- Aging labour force
- Reliance on imported materials
- Domestic vs imported price difference
- Limited capacity
- The best areas to manufacture your product in Canada - not all location are equal
- How to find Canadian manufacturing partners
WHAT ARE SOME WELL-KNOWN CANADIAN CLOTHING LINES?
One of the most common hesitations I hear about making apparel domestically, whether in the USA or in Canada, is that people think that to be professional, they need to go overseas. I have no idea where this false notion started, but it is completely untrue.
To prove my point, here are a few globally famous brands. They all got their start making their products in Canada, and still do today.
Is probably one of Canada’s most famous brands. I remember when we all turned 18. We would take road trips from NY up to Montreal since we were legally allowed to drink there. On one trip, we asked everyone we met: what is the most Canadian thing we can buy here? And, everyone said Lululemon; at the time (back around 2006), we had never heard of Lulu before. And, I never would have been able to guess that it would evolve into one of the world's top-performing athletic brands. Competing with established American heritage companies like Nike and ADIDAS.
Canada Goose (Toronto)
A close second for Canadian fame. Made famous by the North Pole scientists using them to keep warm, it’s hard to go a single city block without spotting one of these cozy iconic parkas.
Herschel Supply Co (Vancouver)
Known for its backpacks, made popular by hipsters and now sold globally at stores like Urban Outfitters.
Another Canadian classic brand of sweatshirts and apparel. And, the second most popular answer when we asked folks what to buy in Canada nearly 20 years ago. These hoodies that use screen printing to showcase the Roots logo across basic garment blanks are hard to miss.
This brand exploded outside of Canada in the last 10 years. They have taken over the U.S. for (omg, I hate using this cliche term, but nothing describes it better) clothing for taking you from “work to happy hour.”
Though these are some of the biggest names in Canadian apparel today, there are thousands of smaller (read, low minimum order quantity), incredible brands manufacturing in Canada too. Proving that it is possible to scale beyond your wildest dreams while garment manufacturing in Canada.
MADE IN CANADA VS PRODUCT OF CANADA
Canada has strict regulations for what can showcase the ‘Made In,’ and ‘Product Of’ labels. I am going to quickly break down the criteria that must be met.
MADE IN CANADA
- At least 51% of the production costs are Canadian
- The last substantial transformation of the goods needs to happen in Canada
What this means is that brands can import fabric and trims, as long as the cost does not exceed 51% of the total production costs. And the final step, the sewing of the garment, needs to be done in Canada.
PRODUCT OF CANADA
- At least 98% of the production costs are Canadian
- The last substantial transformation of the goods needs to happen in Canada
Basically, to be a product of Canada, the entire garment, from fibers to trim, needs to be produced using Canadian companies.
Because a true ‘Product of Canada label can be quite difficult to qualify for, and in some cases impossible depending on the type of product – most brands choose to go for the ‘Made In’ option.
WHY CANADA FOR YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN? THREE REASONS
Canada offers a bustling, eco-friendly, and high-quality apparel industry. So here are three reasons you might want to consider a Canadian apparel manufacturer.
ONE: Specialized Manufacturing Capabilities
If you look closely, every country has its own specialized areas of manufacturing. In the U.S., Los Angeles is known for athleisure, while NY is home to more ready-to-wear. In Southern India, specifically, Tamil Nadu is where most of the country’s knits are from. And in the north, Delhi, and Jaipur supply more wovens. Canada is no different.
While there are other manufacturer Canada has to offer, these three categories are abundant, and will be a lot easier to get made:
Warm Winter Apparel (ie, Weather Tech)
Canadians (quite literally) can weather it all. Whether the it's incessant rain of Vancouver, the sub-zero temperatures of the prairies, to the barrage of nor’ easters on the east coast—Canadians know pretty much everything there is to know about staying warm and comfortable in the bitter wet and cold. This real-life expertise of Canada clothing manufacturers transfers directly into their skill set.
Athleticwear & Sportswear
Though vastly smaller than in the U.S., Canada’s thriving national athletics programs have demanded the country keep up with its own quality athletic apparel – Canada-made brand fanatics are now making all of the NHL’s athletic and uniform apparel, for example. Fashionable designs and breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics are part of the industry draw.
Bags, backpacks, and luggage
Sought after for their craftsmanship, bags, and luggage are another popular made-in-Canada lifestyle item. While not the place to go for the hottest designer trends, Canada specializes in high-quality, extremely rugged, and functional goods that are built to last.
While I’m sure you could make luxury garments, ready-to-wear fashion, and sweaters in Canada - it would be difficult. So, make your life easier, and stick to what Canadian manufacturers are known for: outdoor apparel, athleisure, sportswear, and bags.
TWO: Over a Century of Experience
Once an outpost known as the Toronto Passage, this port city on the northwestern shores of Lake Ontario became a key transportation hub in the 17th and 18th centuries. Toronto’s proximity to Europe and to all other trade routes moving eastward through Canada made it a good center for manufacturing, not to mention showcasing global fashions. Heightened interest in European clothing drove an appetite for fashions that were too difficult and expensive to import.
THE FIRST CANADIAN FASHION FACTORIES
So, the first textile mills were introduced into Toronto’s River Valley in the early 19th century. Here the rivers were particularly well-suited for water-generated power. As well as the dyeing/finishing process of natural fiber yarns to be made into fabrics like quality wool and cotton. Soon a thriving garment district was born in downtown Toronto. The industry remained a strong clothing manufacturing hub of Canadian fashions for more than a century.
CANADIAN MANUFACTURING TODAY
For the most part, this remained all the way through the 1970s-80s. But with the expansion of globalization, the rise of “fast fashion,” and finally, the dropping of all free trade barriers with China in 2005, the Canadian apparel industry took a substantial hit. Many Canadian companies struggled to remain competitive in a more global market.
However, with the advance of technology and e-commerce, plus a growing demand for locally-produced goods from smaller, more conscious-driven brands—the industry has seen a huge resurgence. The bulk of the manufacturing industry is now located mainly in Quebec and Ontario.
Finding renewed focus in areas like niche markets, sustainability, and high-quality tailoring and craftsmanship, today, Canada clothing manufacturers are finding new demand in wholesale clothing manufacturing. And, to make things super easy, many factories also offer white label as well as private label clothing manufacturing. Former hubs like Quebec, Ontario, Vancouver, and Montreal are all bustling with production once again. Factories are even having trouble keeping up (but, more on that in just a minute).
THREE: Skilled Labor
Canadians like to do things right, specifically with sports and performance textiles. You might credit the global fame of Lululemon. But, today, Canada’s leading the way with new fiber and fabric innovations in the sports space.
And though there’s generally a shortage of labor in Canada on the whole (we’ll get to that, I promise). The current workers in the Canadian workforce are generally well-educated, trained, and highly skilled in various manufacturing technologies and methodologies. (Read: they’re able to save you product development time).
FOUR: A Strong American Dollar
My USA friends: Just a short drive or a quick flight across the border, and there you are. Historically, the American dollar has kept a higher value than the Canadian loonie. Currently, $1 USD is trading between $1.30 - $1.40 CAD. That means you can stretch your investment capital further in the Canadian markets.
Due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, Canada is now almost entirely an exporter of apparel. They ship 75% of the clothes it produces across the border into the United States. In fact, Canada expects its apparel manufacturing industry to grow by almost 2.5% this year alone. With the U.S. geographically close, and the dollar strong there, Canada’s growing manufacturing market has its appeal.
FIVE: Governmental Support
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to consider Canada for apparel manufacturing is the financial support. The Canadian government offers various programs and funding initiatives to support new businesses in the fashion industry. This support can help you find resources, obtain grants and funding, and navigate the complexities of manufacturing in Canada. Programs include:
- The Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) provides financial assistance, advisory services, and R&D help to small and medium-sized fashion brands just getting their start.
- Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Certification (CGSB) offers various certification programs, including those related to textiles and apparel. Getting your CGSB certification can provide much credibility to your brand.
- The Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF) is great for industry resources, networking opportunities, and information on government programs relevant to the fashion industry.
- A Canada Job Grant helps give funding to employers to help them train their new or existing staff to enhance their manufacturing skills.
- Though not a government program, note that the Canadian Manufacturing Technology Show (CMTS) is a major trade show and conference focused on advanced manufacturing technologies and worth checking out!
And, if you’re willing to do a little more digging, there are tons of local grants offered to support small fashion businesses. In fact, one of my Canadian students just received a $35,000 local government grant to kickstart her lingerie company.
FIVE: A Focus On Ethical & Sustainable Manufacturing
Followers of my content will know this topic is close to my heart and foundational to my brand. So you can imagine why I get excited talking about Canada as a world model for transforming standards around sustainability and ethical production.
For starters, on their own, the vast majority of Canadian small businesses prioritize responsible sourcing and manufacturing. This could mean anything from using sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, and innovative eco-friendly fabrics, to adhering to strict environmental standards for reduced water, energy consumption, and waste management.
As a culture and nation, Canada clothing manufacturers also support all the things us conscious fashion supports love, like...
- the promotion of ethical transparent supply chains
- sustainable design and longevity
- the prioritization of consumer education
- and participation in global certification programs [like Fairtrade, Global Organic Textile Standard or GOTS, or Bluesign®, etc.]. All of this demonstrates the country’s commitment to ethical and sustainable production.
And while not all of these practices are unique to Canada, they do represent the efforts and values of many Canadian fashion brands.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND ISSUES WITH MADE-IN-CANADA PRODUCTS?
Despite a recent resurgence in its apparel industry, Canada still faces specific issues that continue to be a challenge for not only its clothing production but for Canadian manufacturing as a whole.
I’m very “pro” Made-In Canada, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t let you in on some of the challenges (four of them specifically) you might face working with Canada clothing manufacturers.
ONE: The Canadian labor shortage
By far, the largest issue facing the Canadian apparel industry is labor. Canada’s population is a mere fraction of that of India, China, or Vietnam, making Canada’s labor comparatively expensive and difficult to come by with each passing year.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of the international labor force returned to their home countries, and others who were thinking about moving to Canada were not able to. Now that things have normalized, Canada is once again growing its apparel workforce.
On top of this, Canada has an aging workforce. And sewing and/or job training in the apparel industry is not a skill young people acquire at school or strive to learn anymore. This contributes to the labor decline year after year.
TWO: Imported materials
While Canada makes some textiles (the country continues to excel at high-quality knits, like French terry, fleece, swim, and athleisure), Canada is still an importer of many types of materials necessary for a clothing or accessory line. So, the majority of fabrics are still shipping from overseas (China). Therefore, relying on the supply chain means experiencing a range of external factors like transportation and shipping delays, product shortages, and delivery and production setbacks that can be slower and more costly compared to overseas.
THREE: Price point
No doubt, due to the above reasons and more, manufacturing apparel in Canada is expensive! High labor and production costs compared to overseas means you’ll never be able to compete with the $5 shirt that’s produced in Vietnam or Bangladesh.
On top of that, Canada clothing manufacturers have a reputation for innovation in garment design, as well as attention to detail and craftsmanship, which means Canada is not a place to produce fast fashion. Even if you do everything right (and I’m here to help you do just that: see my end note for a link!), your made-in-Canada garments are simply going to end up with a higher price tag.
One that, hopefully (with the right branding and marketing), your customers will know is worth every penny.
FOUR: Limited production capacity
Unlike suppliers overseas, Canadian factories may not be set up for large-volume orders or large-scale production.
That is why many of the brands I mentioned earlier (Lulu, etc.) have expanded their supply chains overseas.
But, it is still possible for them to support the Canada clothing manufacturers that helped them get their start through smaller test orders.
This is a strategy that I use with all of my clients too. We get new developments and more complex designs made locally, while the production of a larger volume or more simple designs gets moved overseas. This way, brands get the best of both manufacturing worlds.
WHERE ARE THE BEST CANADA CLOTHING MANUFACTURERS LOCATED?
So, did I convince you? Are you interested in getting your products made in Canada?
The first thing you need to know is that there are three major manufacturing centers in Canada.
This is the birthplace of some of the oldest retailers (e.g., Canada Goose and the Hudson’s Bay Company) in all of North America. Back then, the industrial revolution had downtown Toronto filled with an entire fashion district of industrial-era garment warehouses. Though most of these spaces are now loft studios, galleries, and tech firms these days – the city’s manufacturing past is still very present.
Toronto still leads the country in design and manufacturing, and Ontario itself boasts 65% of all Canadian clothing production. I think of Toronto as a huge Canadian fashion hub. Plus it’s home to so many important tradeshows that visit from all around the world. No doubt Toronto is worth checking out.
Vancouver, British Columbia (BC)
Vancouver has a vibrant and diverse fashion scene, and it houses a range of mad in Canada clothing manufacturers, from small-scale, sample making, independent producers to larger production facilities.
The city is focused on supporting small startup brands (with many of the brands I listed earlier getting their start here). Whether through grants or networking events, Vancouver is a model city for supporting small fashion businesses by supplying some of the most basic tools they need to flourish. Plus, it's laid-back vibe and proximity to the fashion hubs of San Fransico and Los Angeles make this a great city to manufacture and sell fashions on Canada’s west coast.
A city known for its skilled artisans (and sometimes expensive price tags). Today Montreal is the third biggest manufacturing city in all of North America. Montreal-based manufacturers are adept at precision detailing, as well as working with a wide range of fabrics and materials.
Montreal is also home to the Gildan family of brands - one of the biggest suppliers of blank t-shirts in the world.
You might think one of the coldest parts of Canada would be known for parka manufacturing, and it is. But surprisingly this city is also famous for it's denim industry. Factories here produce garments for big brands like L.L. Bean, OshKosh, and The Gap.
Where else can I manufacture in Canada?
While technically, you can find small manufacturers anywhere in Canada, the bulk of manufacturing is happening in the above three cities. So, I would start my search here.
LOOKING OR A CANADIAN MANUFACTURING PARTNER?
This list will help you get a head start.
Canadian Apparel Federation
A one-stop shop for all the resources and latest news in Canadian Apparel. But, to save you time, check out their Canadian Apparel Directory with a list of all the major supply chain players in the country.
BC Alliance for Manufacturing
From skills training, to a network of not just Canada clothing manufacturers, but manufacturing partners across all industries, The BC Alliance for Manufacturing is the largest association of manufacturers, and a great place to get a head start meeting suppliers.
Based in Quebec with over 250 members, MMode offers everything from financial resources to supply chain assistance. Their goal is to help fashion brands thrive.
The Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME)
The CME advocates for and represents the interests of the manufacturing and exporting community, with the goal of stimulating economic growth, job creation, and innovation in Canada. So, it’s the perfect palace to start your search for a manufacturing partner.
SO WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT CANADIAN CLOTHING MANUFACTURING?
Are you going to make your product in Canada? Let me know in the comments if you plan to use Canada clothing manufacturers in your supply chain!