For years, Prescott’s famed Hathaway shirt outlet offered bargains that drew thousands to our small border town. But the plant, which once employed nearly 200 people, closed its doors 10 years ago.
The story of what happened to Prescott’s “needle and thread” factories is all too familiar. Some businesses were absorbed by larger companies, but all eventually closed owing to offshore competition and less government protection.
A 1952 article in the Ottawa Citizen enthusiastically described numerous factories in town, including the Fischl Glove Co., which had operated since 1939, Gold Glove, whose original premises had burned in the great fire of 1942, and Superior Silk Mills. Jim Walker’s Wellington Textiles (a precursor to Hathaway shirts and Warnaco of Canada) was one of the newer guys on the block. Here’s the company’s story…
No one had to go and convince Jim Walker to move from Toronto to Prescott. “It was a haunch started on a big bank loan. It was a gamble,” he said to the Ottawa Citizen, in 1952, “but it turned out all right.”
James Cowan Walker was born in Regina in 1920, and had been toying with the idea of developing a sportswear company while he was in the Royal Canadian Navy. Around since the 1940s, Wellington Textiles – named after Prescott’s historic Fort Wellington – was first acquired by Herbie Caldwell of Iroquois’ Caldwell Linen Mills. Under Jim Walker, the company became Wellington Walker, known across North America, for its Wellington of Canada clothing brand.
Walker built a modern $65,000 factory on St. Lawrence Street, in Prescott, travelled to New York and returned, much to everyone’s surprise, with his first big order from a large U.S. department store. He had been told by fashion experts in Canada that his idea of “taking dresses to New York was like taking coals to Newcastle.”
This early success would serve Walker well. Within 10 years, he was making deals with giants such as the Warner Brothers Company, who had acquired C.F. Hathaway in 1960. When Warner’s decided to expand into Canada, the company sent Leonard Saulter, who was told: “You won’t be there long. It’s not going to be a big business but we’d like to introduce Hathaway dress shirts to Canada.” Saulter remained in Canada for three years, returning to New York to head the Lady Hathaway division in New York, and later becoming president of Warnaco (formerly Warner Brothers Company).
What made Hathaway shirts famous worldwide was the brilliant series of “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” advertisements of the 1950s featuring Baron George Wrangell wearing a black eyepatch: “HATHAWAY shirts wear infinitely longer — a matter of years. They make you look younger and more distinguished, because of the subtle way HATHAWAY cut collars. The whole shirt is tailored more generously, and is therefore more comfortable. The tails are longer, and stay in your trousers. The buttons are mother-of-pearl. Even the stitching has an ante-bellum elegance about it. Above all, HATHAWAY make their own shirts of remarkable fabrics, collected from the four corners of the earth…”
Canadian advertising in the 1960s mentioned the HATHAWAY workrooms, in Prescott, and “the painstaking way in which HATHAWAY cutters and stitchers work. These dedicated craftsmen fuss over every detail.”
During Warnaco’s rapid expansion of the 1970s, the Prescott factory continued making Hathaway Shirts, and Jim Walker became president of Warnaco of Canada Limited, overseeing acquisitions such as Croydon’s rainwear of Montreal. By 1980, Prescott’s Hathaway plant was manufacturing men’s dress and sport shirts, pyjamas, robes, knits and sportswear under the Hathaway label, and the Christian Dior line of dress shirts, sport shirts, knits, and sweaters.
In spite of Warnaco’s diverse portfolio, the company was struggling to turn a profit. Management of the company was turned over to Walker, who eventually moved to Greenwich, NY, and another company executive, Philip Lamoureux. Walker was named CEO, in 1977 and together, they turned the company around quickly.
In 1982, Lamoureux left the company, and a year later, Walker died unexpectedly of kidney failure. At the time of his death in 1983, Warnaco derived 30% of its apparel sales from imports, up from 10% in the early 1970s. Headquartered in Bridgeport, CT, it was the seventh largest public apparel producer in the U.S. with sales of more than $475 million. The company’s brands included Warner’s, Hathaway, White Stag, Puritan, Thane and Rosanna, and it had licenses for Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Pringle of Scotland, Chaps by Ralph Lauren, Speedo, Jack Nicklaus and Spalding.
One of the last to fight for Prescott’s shirt factory was Alan Behar, president of Behar Cline Manufacturing. Behar, the factory’s new owner, met with Ottawa MPs, in 2004, to ask the government to renew duty remission orders. Without an extension of the orders, he predicted there would be a 50% difference in the price of duty-free shirts from Asia versus those made in Canadian factories. Today, Ike Behar International maintains an administrative presence in Guelph, having closed the plant in Prescott, in 2006, and laid off the last 20 manufacturing employees in Guelph, in 2013.
Ten years after the last shirt was packaged at the former Prescott shirt factory, there are signs of redevelopment as an Ashley Furniture Store, with a 20,000-square-foot showroom, is being planned for the former Hathaway site.
In memory of Jim Walker, Warnaco of Canada Limited presented Walker House to the Town of Prescott, in 1986, as a centre for the betterment, education and recreation of the community’s older adults.