How to Make a Pair of Jeans
by Catherine C. Cole
When Levi Strauss and Co. integrated Edmonton's GWG plant into its manufacturing operation, the company reduced the number of styles produced considerably. By the time the plant closed in February 2004, only Levi's jeans and Dockers pants were made locally; 17,000 pairs were manufactured daily. As part of the Piece by Piece project, the plant was documented on video and in still photography just weeks before its closure.
Operators were hired to work on specific machines and could be considered for another, higher paying, machine when an opening came up. Supervisors sometimes used training films, but usually just demonstrated how to operate the machine. The women learned quickly—even if they did not speak the same language as their trainer. Sometimes it took an operator six months, however, to reach full efficiency. Most operators performed the same task day in, day out, for many years. Others were trained as 'utility girls,' able to work on any machine and to replace other workers when they were absent. There were two rates of pay, depending on the skills required to operate specific machinery.
Each machine was set up specifically for the type of fabric and thread being used, and had to be adjusted for each style of garment. While operators cared for their own machines and did minor repairs, there were a dozen or so mechanics on staff to keep the machines running smoothly.
Operators used tickets to keep track of how many bundles they had completed. Some timed their work to take smaller sized garments so they could finish their bundles quickly. When the company stopped paying by piecework, computers attached to each machine recorded how many bundles the operators completed each day, compared to how many they were expected to complete.
In contrast to the early GWG years, by 2004 safety had become an important issue; operators wore earplugs, gloves or taped fingers, rubber thimbles, and safety glasses. Some wore dust masks. Many operators wore aprons and sleeves to protect their clothing from lint.