Chinatown Garment Industry Hanging by a Thread

Posted on: May 17th, 2022 at 5:08 am by

Photo: Karlin Chan

Once a hub of manufacturing for the city’s garment industry, there are only a few remaining factories in Chinatown from a peak in the hundreds. The localized industry, which once employed thousands of immigrant women and men, sparked an area restaurant boom in the 1970s. Yet, began to decline in the late 1980s when manufacturers started exporting jobs overseas for cheap labor.

Many longtime residents likely remember hearing the whirring of sewing machines along Mott, Elizabeth, Canal or East Broadway. Women worked diligently at their machines to turn out dresses, shirts or slacks – usually at pennies apiece depending on the garment – while men worked the steam presses or sort the pre-cut pattern pieces necessary to fabricate a garment into bundles.

Better known as sweatshops, the hours were grueling, and often the only employment immigrant women could find. Risks were aplenty, too, with hazards of breathing fabric fibers or development or carpal tunnel.

Photo: Karlin Chan

Today, only a handful of garment factories still operate on Mott Street, churning out suits, jackets, dresses, and the like. (Most of their brethren decamped for Brooklyn two decades ago in the face of steep rents.) On any given day, finished and unfinished product can be seen loaded into trucks curbside.

To many older folk in Chinatown passing by, it reminds them of time long ago.

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