Sweetgrass baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, where learning to coil baskets "so tightly they could hold water" was an important rite of passage in West African tribes like the Mende and the Temne.
This basket-making tradition came to South Carolina in the 17th century by way of West African slaves who were brought to America to work on plantations. West Africa resembles South Carolina in both climate and landscape, and rice had long been cultivated there. In slaves, plantation owners gained not only free labor but also a wealth of knowledge and skill.
One such skill was basketry. Using a type of marsh grass known as bulrush, slaves coiled sturdy, intricate work baskets called fanners. Fanners were used for winnowing, the process of tossing hulls into the air to separate the chaff from the rice. Other work baskets held vegetables, shellfish, and later, cotton.
It is interesting to note that early baskets were made not from sweetgrass but from bulrush, a tough plant well-suited for heavy plantation use. Further, Bulrush – or russia as it sometimes called – isn't botanically a bulrush at all. It is actually a needle rush (Juncus roemareanus). Many Lowcountry residents will recognize this as the tall, dark marsh grass that grows alongside our green Spartina. It is a native plant that takes root in mud of a slightly higher elevation. According to local botanist Karl Ohlandt, sometimes the difference in elevation can be as little as an inch or two.
In fact, it wasn't until the early 1900s that artists began to employ other plant materials, including pine needles, saw palmetto fronds, and, most notably, sweetgrass. This important addition allowed for greater flexibility, which in turn allowed for more sophisticated designs like loops. Other assets of sweetgrass are its pretty, pale green color and its pleasant scent, which many compare to the smell of fresh hay.
Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) grows in the moist, sandy soils near oceans and marshes. Although nondescript much of the year, you can easily recognize it by its vibrant purple plumes in the fall, which eventually fade to white. It's harvested in the spring and summer by "pullers" who slip it from its roots and place it in the sun to dry.
One thing that makes sweetgrass baskets special is that they aren't made with typical weaving techniques like plaiting or twisting, which are common in other parts of the world. Instead, Gullah artists employ the West African tradition of coiling. Dried sweetgrass is bundled together and coiled in circles. Thin strands of palmetto fronds hold the piece in place, and bulrush and pine needles are then added for decoration and strength.
To create these intricate artworks, basketmakers use either a "sewing bone" or a "nailbone." Sewing bones are sharpened metal spoons, and nailbones are little metal picks made by flattening nails or whittling the rib bones of a cow or pig.
Sweetgrass Baskets and the Sexes
Interestingly, although sweetgrass baskets are now made mostly by women, male slaves usually made these large baskets for the field. Female slaves focused on the functional baskets of the home, which they used in their cabins for storage and food. Baskets were often coiled by older slaves who were no longer able to work in the hot sun; plantation owners then sold the baskets for extra income.
Basketmaking was once common along the coast from southern North Carolina to northern Florida, anywhere slaves worked and grew rice. Today, the craft is primarily concentrated in South Carolina's Lowcountry, especially in downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant.
In Charleston, simply go to the Four Corners of Law at the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets. There, you will find basketmakers creating and selling their crafts along the sidewalk. You will also find Gullah women making sweetgrass baskets in the city market area between Meeting and East Bay streets.
Mount Pleasant basket stands can be found alongside US 17. The Hamlin community – a community of families who are descendants of slaves from area plantations – have stands along the "Seven-Mile" stretch known as the "Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway."
Although sweetgrass baskets have been a part of Lowcountry culture for more than 300 years, the future of the art is uncertain. Today, it faces four main threats:
Imported knockoffs – If you travel to the Lowcountry these days, you will almost certainly encounter "seagrass" baskets, an Asian counterpart which looks an awful lot like sweetgrass to the discerning eye. These baskets are sold widely in giftshops here – often in giftshops which profess to sell locally-made products.
These baskets are much less expensive than sweetgrass, mainly because they are not as well made. Instead of intricate weaving, their coils are bound by clear plastic threads. They also do not feature the wide range of greens and browns that true sweetgrass baskets do, being instead a flatter shade of a beige and gray.
Still, to tourists, these baskets are often confused with the real thing. And when giftshops sell them alongside other local products, it doesn't help dispell the myth. Many people buy these as souvenirs, believing them genuine. Sadly, everytime someone buys one of these imitation baskets, that means one of our own artists is left out. And instead of remaining in our community, the profit goes elsewhere.
Shortage of sweetgrass plants – Over the past few decades, rampant development has taken a toll on almost every aspect of life for coastal South Carolinians. Many of us know Mount Pleasant, just outside Charleston, as a hubbub of sprawl and shopping, but until the early 1990s, much of its main artery, US 17 North, remained a quiet, two-lane road. The surrounding land was home to small communities with names like 5-Mile and 7-Mile – meaning they were five miles and seven miles from the Cooper River, respectively.
Here, generations of African-American families carved out lives of self-sufficiency. They hunted, fished, and grew vegetables on small farms and in gardens. It was a different time. Even though black families did not often own waterfront property (though some did, especially in certain areas like Scanlonville), the white families who lived there would generally allow their neighbors access to the water to shrimp or gather oysters.
In time, development, often in the form of gated communities, destroyed forest habitats and eliminated access to creeks and rivers. Large tracts of land were divided and sold to strangers. The time-honored bonds that connected black families to white families fell away. African-Americans were cut off from their traditional means of survival. Many have been forced to find work in the city, often in the tourism and service industry at minimum wage.
Today, because sweetgrass grows near creeks and behind and between ocean dunes, many black families would have to trespass to harvest it – if and where it even exists! Suburban lawns are mown and manicured, void of the native plants that would normally grow there. And large dune systems, once prominent on South Carolina shores, have been replaced by million-dollar homes.
Though some organizations and municipalities have tried to grow sweetgrass in recent years, the stock available at nurseries comes from Florida. According to Ohlandt, who wrote his thesis on sweetgrass restoration, this stock is coarser and grows more upright. It is also harder to harvest. Consequently most artists prefer not to use it. Ohlandt adds that unfortunately, even when South Carolina stock is used, if it is not grown in natural conditions, where it can be blown and battered by wind and salt, it will not make for strong baskets.
Widening of US 17 – The traditional basket stands along the Ocean Highway are being unintentionally forced out of the community by construction of shopping malls and business parks with road frontage along the highway.
TV and video games – Okay, we confess we're teasing a bit here, because obviously TV and video games aren't a direct threat to sweetgrass baskets. Still, many basketmakers lament the fact that their children and grandchildren just aren't interested in taking up the craft. And there is truth to this. Most basketmakers today are of an older generation, and some are concerned that after they go, there will be no one left to fill their shoes. Others smile and take heart, remembering how they themselves were ambivalent about the artform in their early years. They believe their children will come back to their roots in time.
This book details sweetgrass basketry in the South Carolina Lowcountry from its roots in Africa through its development on the rice plantations to its current renaissance as an art form sought after by collectors and tourists.
The ancient African art of sweetgrass basket making has been practiced for more than 300 years in the Christ Church Parish of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Seen on the roadways of Charleston County and in museums and galleries worldwide, these unique handmade baskets are crafted from sweetgrass, bullrush, pine needles, and palm leaves.
A story about a grandmother teaching her granddaughter the art of weaving sweetgrass baskets. The grandmother talks about her ancestors who made sweetgrass baskets in South Africa many years ago, and how her grandfather was sold into slavery and brought his basket weaving skills with him. Once slavery was abolished, the family kept making baskets, and each generation has since learned the art of making these magnificent baskets which tie their family together.