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Lowell Cloth

Lowell Cloth

Lowell cloth was a "generic" term for cheap, coarse cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell, and eventually on plantations and textile mills in the South. Below are references to “Lowell Cloth” taken from 39 different Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration [WPA] in the 1930s.

1. State: Arkansas Interviewee: Beard, Dina

Yes I was born in slavery time. I was born September 2, 1862 in the field under a tree. I don't know nothing about slavery. I was too young to remember anything about slavery. But I tell you this much, times ain't like they used to be. There was easy living back in the 18 hundred years. People wore homemade clothes, what I mean homespun and lowell clothes. My ma spun and weaved all of her cloth. We wore our dresses down to our ankles in length and my dresses was called mother hubbards. The skirts had about three yards circumference and we wore plenty of clothes under our dress. We did not go necked like these folks do now. Folk did not know how we was made. Ye did not show our shape, we did not disgrace ourself back in 1800. We wore our hair wrapped and head rags tied on our head. I went barefooted until I was a young missie then I wore shoes in the winter but I still went barefooted in the summer. My papa was a shoemaker so he made our shoes. We raised everything that we ate when I was a chap. We ate a plenty. We raised plenty of whippowell peas. That was the only kind of peas there was then. We raised plenty Moodie sweet potatoes they call then nigger chokers now. We had cows so we had plenty of milk and butter. we cooked on the fireplace. The first stove I cooked on was a white woman's stove, that was 1890.

2. State: Arkansas Interviewee: Island, Mary

"In my young days all we wore was homespun and lowel. We lived in a log house with a dirt floor and the cracks was chinked with mud and our bed was some poles nailed against the wall with two legs out on the dirt floor, and we pulled grass and put in a lowel bed tick. My aunty would get old dresses, old coats, and old pants and make quilts.

3. State: Arkansas Interviewee: Tatum, Fannie

"I wasn't allowed to sat at the table. I et on the edge of the porch with the dogs with my fingers. I worked around the house and washed until I was nine and then I started to plowing. At ten I started splitting rails. My task was two hundred rails a day. If I didn't cut them I got a beating. I did not know what a coat was. I wore two pieces, a lowel? underskirt and a lowel? dress, bachelor brogans and sacks and rags wrapped around my legs for stockings. That was in winter. Summer I went barefooted and wore one piece. My hat was a rag tied on my head.

4. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Brown, Ebenezer

"When it rained de wimen had to go in de loom house an' wurk. Dey made all de jeans an' lowells, an' cloth right dar an' dyed sum uf it wid copperas an' maple bark.  Dem women cud make pritty cloth. Dat cloth niver wore out. In dem days de wimen wore hoops an' whut yer call balmarals (1) - De white folks dun it an' so did the slave wimen.

5. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Coleman, Lula

". . .with wooden hinges. Hit twasn' painted; hit was old-like an' had been rubbed a heap. He kep' his things in hit an' didn' nobody dare go round hit 'til he was dead, but we knowed he had a book in there couldn' nobody read. Then his son, the one he had ter set at de head of de table, he opened hit an' they was some clothes an' some - some breas'-pins-like - they wasn' breas'-pins but leetle fancy things like, you know. His clothes was made out of white 'lowell' cloth. An' dat day he lef' his son settin' at de head of de table an' say, 'Come see me befo' you go,' an' he put him on pants an' socks - somp'in he aint never wo' befo' - an' dat book was laid on his ches' an' he was stiff dead when they found him. They went ter buy him a coffin ter Mr. Joe Hellman's an' Mr. Joe say, 'Who dis fer?' An' they tell him, 'Fer John Ren; he dead.' An' Mr. Joe say, 'You won't have ter, he bought hit hisse'f las' Tuesday.' An' dis was de very nex' Sunday. I don' know'm how old he was but he'd point up at de stars an' point at us an' say-like dat he was a grown man with other grandchullun 'sides us dat time de stars fell (1833).

6. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Crum, Ed

"Uncle Sam come roun' an' wak us up 'bout sun up an' we worked in de fields till sun down gen'ally. Now on rainy days mammy an' all de womens would weave an' spin in de loom house makin' clof—lowell you know, fo' us clothes. When we wo'

7. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Davenport, Charlie

"Us wore lowell-cloth shirts. It was a coarse tow-sackin'. In winter us had linsey-woolsey pants an' heavy cow-hide shoes. Dey was made in three sizes - big, little, an' *mejum. Twant no right or lef'. Dey was sorts club-shaped so us could wear 'em on either foot. shoes dey was russetts an' one ob de men's on de place made 'em.

8. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Halfen, July Ann

"My mammy had to spin, card an' weave cloth ebery rainy day. We black folks had to wear lowells an' dat stuff wud neber wear out. I wore shirt tail aprons till afte' de surrender an' neber had any shoes till I wus in my teens.

9. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Harris, Virginia

"All the children wore was their shirt tails. I was about sixteen years before I ever owned a dress. The men's pants and shirts and the women's dresses was all made of lowell. In the winter the clothes was the same 'cept you wore more of them. The children went barefooted all year round. It look like they do better than they do now. They wasn't sickly and puny. The grownups all had shoes and they was good heavy ones.

10. State: Mississippi    Interviewee: Jefferson, Hattie

"My mammy always wore dresses made uf lowels, made plain frum de neck all de way down, wid a band at de waist an' a pocket in de side; dat pocket wus long an' kept her 'backer an' pipe in dat pocket, an' one time her dress was sot on fire frum de pipe, an' my grandpappy had to wrap mammy up in a quilt to put out de fire. It made a bad sore on her leg.

11. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Jones, Oliver

"All us lil' chillun wo' one piece suits made outten' lowell, with buttons down de back. One man on de plantation didn't do nothin' but make shoes for all de other cullured people on de plantation. Aunt Celie made us de clo's we wo'.

12. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Kitchens, Mary Ann

"Us wo' red russets an' clothes made out'n lowell. I disremembers jes who made our clothes but I knows I used to spin an' reel in de loom room some myself.

13. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Lucas, James

"When I was a little chap I used to wear coarse lowell cloth shirts on de week-a-days. Dey was long an' had big collars en when de seams ripped our hide was 'sposed. I nevah went to church, but on Sundays a white man would preach 'en pray wid us. Den we'd go on 'bout our business. When I got big enough to wait 'bout de 'big house' an go to town I wore rough clean clothes.  My pants was white 'lindsey woolsey' en my shirts was rough white cotton what was wove at de plantation.

14. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Matthews, John

"If I lives to see de twenty fifth day uf dis month I will be eighty five years old. I wus a big boy when we wus sot free, but had never had eny pants in my life at dat time; me an' all de udder black chilluns wore long tail lowel shirts.

15. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Moore, Riley

"We had home made shoes called "Red Rippers," half 'nuff lowells clothes to wear an' half 'nuff to eat. Didn't know what Christmas day was. Niggers been run to death ever since they been in de world. It's a pity to. They the best laboring class in de world an' gets less out of it."

16. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Robinson, Ephriam

"He wore for a garment a single long lowel shirt until he was nine years old, in fact, the first pants that he owned were made for him by his mistress, and this was why she made them. His young "Marster", Captain Allen Morrison of the Federal Army, had carried a young Negro slave as his body-servant to Virginia, and he did not behave so well. So when a friend of the soldier was coming home on furlough, Captain Morrison sent him back home to his father and asked him to send him the boy, Ephriam, to be his waiting boy. Ephriam was anxious to go as he wanted to see things, so his mammy, who was a home-servant, dyed some dove-gray homespun, and his mistress cut out and made him a suit. He remembers the pants having a stripe on the legs.

17. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Stapleton, Wright

"All our clo'se was made on de plantation, even our brogan shoes an' our straw an' shuck hats. We wore 'bout de same things fer Sunday dat us wore through de week we didn't hab no whars to go no how. We wore long lowel shirt till we was 'round twelve an' fourteen years ole when we started to wearin' home made pants.

18. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Stier, Isaac

"My white folks was all Baptis' an' dey made us go to church, too. De church was called de Strong River Church. Dey had big baptisin's. I 'members when I joined de church. De white folks preacher baptised us in de creek what run from Marse Berry's mill pond. I was dressed up in a white lowell slip. When us dress' up in Sund'y clo'es us had caliker dresses. Dey sho' was pretty. I 'members a dress now dat Old Marster bought for my granny. It was white an' yaller, an' it was de prettiest thing I ever seen. 

19. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Sutton, Jane

"My white folks was all Baptis' and dey made us go to church too. De church was called de "Strong River Church." Dey had big babtizings." I 'members when I jined de church and was babtized. De white folks preacher babtized us in de creek whut run from Mr. Berry's mill pond. I was drest in a white 'lowel' slip made outer cloth we spin and weave. When we dressed up in our Sunday clothes we had caliker dresses. Dey sho was purty. I 'members a dress now dat old masta bought fer my granny. It was white and yaller, and it was de purtiest thing I thought I ever saw.

20. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Williams, Mollie

"We wo' lowell clo'es an' brass toed brogans. Miss Margurite made our dresses an' lak, an' afte' Aunt Harriet died, she done de cookin' too fer all de slabes an' de fambly. She fix up dinner fer de fiel' han's, an' I taken it to 'em. Marse George had old powder horn he blowed mornin's fer to git de darkies up 'fo day good, an' dey come in 'bout sundown. 

21. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Wilson, Tom

"My mammy wuked in de loom room at night by light er a pine knot. In de Big House dey had taller can'les 'cause I 'member my mammy moulded 'em. No'm de spinnin' wheels was kep' in de kitchen of de big house. Hit had a dirt flo'. Us jes wo' li'l ol' suits made out'n lowell cloth whut mammy wove on de loom. I doan 'member wearin' no shoes.

22. State: Mississippi Interviewee: Young, Robert

"Us all woe lowells whut de darkies made fo' us out'n clof dey made on de loom.  Overseer, he seen to hit dey wove at night. Dey wuked till 'bout nine an had taller can'els to see by. Dey saved de taller when dey kill beefs an' po' hit in moulds to make can'els. I seen my mammy make 'em plen'y times. An' dey was a tanner dat made shoes fo' us dan on de place.

23. State: Oklahoma Interviewee: Anderson, Sam

"We slaves live in de quarters. Beds made out of wood with shuck and moss mattress. We always put de moss in hot water so it don't grow. I wore a shirt until I was ten years old. Shirts was made of old lowell or maybe weaved. They was split up de sides so dey would sail out behind when you ran, but dey had buttons so you could button 'em up in winter. Nothing different on Sunday only clean clothes, but after we gets large we wear pants and shirts. Wears shoes when we gets about ten or twelve years old.

24. State: Oklahoma Interviewee: Grinstead, Robert R.

"I was only eight years of age at freedom and for that reason I was too young to work and on account of being the son of my Master's I received no hard treatment and did little or no work. Yet, I wore the same clothing as did the rest of the slaves: a shirt of lowell for summer and shirt and trousers for winter and no shoes. I could walk through a briar patch in my bare feet without sticking one in the bottom of my feet as they were so hard and resistant.

25. State: Texas Interviewee: Brady, Wes

"We niggers lived in log houses and slep' on hay mattress with lowell covers, and et fat pork and cornbread and 'lasses and all kinds garden stuff. If we et flour bread, our women folks had to slip the flour siftin's from missy's kitchen and daren't let the white folks know it. We wore one riggin' lowell clothes a year and I never had shoes on till after surrender come. I run all over the place till I was a big chap in jes' a long shirt with a string tied round the bottom for a belt. I went with my young massa that way when he hunted in the woods, and toted squirrels for him.

26. State: Texas Interviewee: Chappel, Clara

"We wore lowells in winter and striped cotton goods in summer and linen on Sunday. When we was big, marster furnished us shoes for winter and Sunday, but in summer we went barefoot.

27. State: Texas Interviewee: Easter, Willis

"All us chillen weared lowel white duckin', homemake, jes' one garment. It was de long shirt. You couldn't tell gals from boys on de yard.

28. State: Texas Interviewee: Houston, Alice

"We had straight slips made out of white lowell what was wove on dat ole spinnin' wheel. Den dey make jeans for de men's breeches and dye it wid copperas and some of de cloth dey dye wid sumac berries and hit was sho' purty too.

29. State: Texas Interviewee: Jones, Steve

"In hot weather we wore white lowell shirts open down the front, and same in winter and on Sunday. Young folks went barefooted and old folks wore shoes what they called red russett. An old colored man name Damon would make the shoes out of hides.

30. State: Texas Interviewee: Merritt, Susan

"When the hands come in from the fiel' at night, they had to tote water from the spring, cook and eat supper and be in bed by the time that bell rang at nine o'clock. 'Bout dusk they called all the chil'ren in and give them a piece of co'n-pone bread 'bout the size of my hand, a tin cup of milk and put them to bed. The grown folks et fat po'k, greens, beans, co'n bread dumplings and sich like, and had plenty of milk to drink. On Sunday Master gave all of them butter, flour, and a chicken. Lots of the Negroes caught a good cow-hiding for slipping 'round and stealing a chicken 'fore Sunday. We wore white "lowel" home-spun cotton clothes. They gave us one garment at a time and we wore that the year round. The slaves never had no munney but plenty of grub. My pappy made tar at night and traded it for whiskey.

31. State: Texas Interviewee: Osborne, Annie

"My mammy was sceered of old Tom Bias as if he was a bear. She worked in the field all day and come in at night and help with the stock. After supper they made her spin cloth. Massa fed well 'nough, but made us wear our old lowel clothes till they most fell off us. We was treated jus' like animals, but some owners treated they stock better'n old Tom Bias handled my folks. I still got a scar over my right eye where he put me in the dark two months. We had a young cow and when she had her first calf they sent me to milk her, and she kicked me and run me round a li'l pine tree, fightin' and tryin' to book me. Massa and missy standin' in the gate all the time, hollerin' to me to make the cow stand still. I got clost to her and she kicked me off the stool and I run to the gate, and massa grab me and hit me 'cross the eye with a leather strap and I couldn't see out my right eye for two months. He am dead now, but I's gwine tell the truth 'bout the way we was treated.

32. State: Texas    Interviewee: Parker, Will

"Our bunks was nailed up side of the wall. They had shuck or hay mattresses. We Wore dyed lowels—cotton dyed with red oak and slippery elm. We wore Underwear of the same goods. In winter we wore "ball" woolen underwear and outer garments. We had meetings in the brush arbors when the preacher blew the bugle. In winter time we'd have prayer meetings around the fireplace. Sometimes we had prayer meetin' in the early mornin'. We'd sing 'De ole time religion is good enough for me,' and 'Aint I glad I'se goin' to a witness in the army of de Lord.'  They had baptisms in rivers and creeks.

33. State: Texas Interviewee: Payne, Ellen

"Master Evans lived in a big brick house on the north side of Marshall and run his farm four miles from town, and I stayed on the farm, but come in town some with my mammy to work for Mistress Nancy. The niggers on other farms had to sleep on 'Damn-it-to Hell' beds, but we didn't have that kind. We had good wood beds and hay mattresses with lowell covers.

34. State: Texas Interviewee: Proctor, Jenny

"Dey spinned de cloth what our clothes was made of and we had straight dresses or slips made of lowel. Sometimes dey dye 'em wid sumac berries or sweet gum bark and sometimes dey didn'. On Sunday dey make all de chillun change, and what we wears 'til we gits our clothes washed was gunny sacks wid holes out for our head and arms. We didn' have no shoes 'ceptin' some home made moccasins and we didn' have dem 'til we was big chillun. De little chillun dey goes naked 'til dey was big enough to work. Dey was soon big enough though, 'cordin' to our marster. We had red flannel for winter under clothes. Ole miss she say a sick nigger cost more den de flannel.

35. State: Texas Interviewee: Ruffin, Martin

"The growed slaves et cornbread and bacon and 'lasses and milk, but all the chillen get was little and bread and a little 'lasses, Massa have fifteen en twenty women carding and weaving and spinning most all the time, Each nigger had his task and the chillen gathered berries in the woods to asks dyes for classes. Us wore only white lowell clothes, though. They was she' thick and heavy.

36. State: Texas Interviewee: Snyder, Mariah

"Massa Sam live in a great big, ceiled house, and had plenty land and niggers. The quarters was logs and any kind beds we could git. We wore lowell clothes and I never seed no other kind of dress till after surrender. We et meat and collards end cornbread and rough grub. and they biled all the victuals in a big, black pot what hung on a rack in the kitchen fireplace. We had red russet. flat shoes and no stockin's, but in winter we made wool panties to wear on our legs.

37. State: Texas Interviewee: Thomas, Lucy

"They called my papa, Ike. The Baldwins bought him out of Alabama, and mama's name was Nancy and she's birthed in Virginny, and the Baldwins bought her out the New Orleans slave market for $1,100.00. I's heared my gran'ma, Barbara, tell how some Alabama owners drug they niggers with a mule and laid dem face down in a hole and beat den till they's raw as beefsteak. But her folks wasn't like that and the Baldwins wasn't neither. They was good white folks, and Missy was named May Amelia and then there was Old Marse Doctor William. He was a doctor but he worked a hundred acres land and owned 'bout eighty-five niggers, what lived in log quarters. They had son-of-a-gun beds peg to the walls, and wore bachelor brogan shoes and blue and stripe lowel clothes made on the place, and had lots to eat. My mama say she had a lots better time in slavery than after.

38. State: Texas Interviewee: Winn, Willis

"Us slaves didn't wear nothing but white lowell cloth. They give us pants for Sunday what had a black stripe down the leg. The chillen wore wool clothes in winter, but the big folks wore the same outfit the year round. They didn't care if you froze.

39. State: Texas Interviewee: Young, Litt

"Good gracious, don't talk about what we had to eat. They giv' us plenty. There was turnip greens, hog-jowl, peas, co'n bread, and milk by the barrels. Ole wimmen what was too old to wo'k in the fiel' done the cookin' and 'tended to the babies. They cooked the co'n bread in a oven and brown it like cake. When she pulled a pan of hot co'n bread out with that rake, all the chil'ren was standing round smacking their lips. Every Christmas we got a set of white lowell clothes and a pair of brogan shoes. They done us the whole year, or we go naked