Vanishing trades

What documenting vanishing trades and skills can teach us about our digital society.
Factory manager Kelly Droppo, at Canadian-Made Apparel in Cambridge, Ontario. As a teenager, Kelly started off sewing pockets on shirts. (Karl Kessler)

These days, robotics and AI fuel our anxieties about the future of work. But  people have long had to face the impact of technological change on their jobs.

Karl Kessler and his collaborator, Sunshine Chen, have been visiting factories and workshops, documenting vanishing trades and skills. The Overtime Project was partly inspired by Harvey Wang's portraits of disappearing trades in New York.

The project focuses on Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario. These days, it's a widely acclaimed tech hub, but it has a long history of labour intensive industry, and craft production. The stories they've captured are specific, but these kinds of changes are happening all over North America.

Karl was kind enough to share some of his photos and interview segments with us.

Shoe repairman Louis Pfeifer. (Karl Kessler)

"We had...five broom shops in the region that made corn brooms," says John Davenport, a broom-maker, of the decline in his industry. "Everybody would come in: 'oh we used to have a broom shop in our town in B.C."

Now, though "the only one that I know that makes this broom that we're making in Canada, unless somebody's making it in the garage somewhere, is us," says John Davenport.  

Karl points out that being one of a few remaining practitioners can have its advantages. "Sometimes a shoe repair person will be one of the last they end up getting really busy, because they're the last of their kind."

Some of the places Karl and Sunshine have visited were still making use of older technologies, like a felt-making factory.

"They had all of this equipment hooked up to a steam system," explains Karl. In factories like this one "if a part broke, you machined a new part there, on the spot...No one was going to come in and fix a 1925 Austrian-built steam felt presser!"

Felt worker Alf Hannenberg at the Rumpel Felt Company in Kitchener, Ontario in 2008, just weeks before the factory closed. (Karl Kessler)

On Spark, we usually look at new technologies. But looking back at how technologies have changed, and how people adapt to those changes, can give us insight into our own workplace future.

Nobody worried about getting a job. You could quit one and walk down the street and get hired at another place.

Kelly Droppo rose up through the ranks at a shirt factory, and went on to become a manager. "We were maybe producing about 40-45,000 shirts a week, and that went down to about 8,000 a week not that long ago, before we shut down," she recalls. At one time it was so busy in the area "nobody worried about getting a job," she says. "You could quit one and walk down the street and get hired at another place."

Kelly's shirt factory closed, but like a lot of the people Karl and Sunshine document, she reinvented herself, and the shirt factory.

Garment factory manager Kelly Droppo. (Karl Kessler)

"Within months [of the closure] she and one of the other managers, they restarted," he says. "They rehired half of the people who had been laid off...they reactivated half the equipment, and they started taking in small contracts. They just tightened their ship and kept going."

Karl and Sunshine have a book project in the works, coming out in 2018. You can find out more about the project by visiting The Overtime Project.



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