Osnaburg Fabric: Garment for the Enslaved

It was the osnaburg nightshirt that failed to keep Moses Grandy’s enslaved brother warm when he died of exposure while trying to find a yoke of steers that had wandered into woods of the Great Dismal Swamp during the winter of 1795. That coarse, yet thin fabric had not been enough to keep the enslaved child warm- the elements of winter’s cold air and his steadily weakening body from the previous floggings committed on him by slaver Mr. Kemp assured that death would soon remove the lad from slavery’s grip.[1]

Osnaburg fabric was part of the imposed uniform for the enslaved. It was cheap, relatively durable, and unremarkable enough to fit the status of unfreedom deployed onto enslaved people. As each day dragged on usually working fourteen hours per day in warmer months, enslaved people donned the drab fabric, however on Sunday- an enslaved person’s one day of rest, they would transform the fabric into a Sabbath Day ensemble that they could be proud of. Enslaved people combined their talents at improvisation with precious little into an aesthetic of what middling classes and planter elites would find objectionable.

The forced migration of enslaved captives placed them in alien locales across the Americas where they had to conform to European garb from the very beginning. The articles of enslaved dress are often outlined in the descriptions of runaway slave ads in order to increase the livelihood that the enslaved person could be identified by their clothing- “a strong Oznabrig shirt” or “linsey-woolsey” dress were often worn as enslaved people attempted their flight to freedom.[2]

Osnaburg is part of a family of poor quality textiles- made from coarse inexpensive linen with the main object being durability; a sturdiness appropriate for the unending toil comprised from the forced agricultural, pastoral, and manual labor performed by enslaved people. While working enslaved women wore osnaburg dresses “reefed up” with a cord drawn tightly around the body, along the hips in order that their work would get done unencumbered from long dress hems. Booker T. Washington, a former enslaved person himself, recalled his experience wearing the fabric, describing osnaburg as feeling like “a hundred pin points in contact with the flesh” His older brother eased Booker’s discomfort by “breaking in” the shirt for some days before transferring the garment to him.[3]

 Because enslaved people were responsible for making their own clothing, they knew which root, tree bark, leaf and berry that made red, blue, green and other colors. It was this knowledge that allowed enslaved women to use the dyed cloth to enhance the drab appearance of osnaburg in order to have something nice to wear on Sundays to church.[4]

Travelers and commentators of the nineteenth century complained about the propensity of enslaved people to dress “above themselves” to engage in elaborate finery clearly inappropriate to their lowly station in life. Nevertheless osnaburg fabric exists still today as a cultural remnant and reminder of the fabric relegated to the class of people also known as chattel.

 

 

Grandy, Moses, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, “Late a Slave in the United States of America” .London: Gilpin, 1843

 

White, Shane and Graham, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148. Oxford, 1995

[1] Moses Grandy, Narrative in the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America (London: C. Gilpin, 1843), 9

[2] Shane and Graham White, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148 (August 1995), 154.

[3] Ibid, 174

[4] It should be mentioned that church attendance was mandatory on many plantations during the antebellum era for enslaved people. Pastors were often Euroamerican and sermons were carefully constructed to dissuade enslaved people from insurgent activity-church was a method of control for enslaved people. In many locales enslaved people had a separate clandestine church meeting for themselves in the outlying woods of the plantation. In these gatherings enslaved people practiced their faith in a manner of their choosing.

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