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SCIWAY News No. 77 – October 2009

Previous Issues of SCIWAY News

Two for the Road – Take Two!

Last month we featured the first of two SC state symbols that can easily be spotted along the roadsides this time of year. We began with goldenrod, our state wildflower, which we'll continue to see blooming bright yellow all over the state until after Thanksgiving.

This month, we bring you South Carolina's distinctive state handcraft – the sweetgrass basket. Baskets are a common sight in the Lowcountry, especially in downtown Charleston and along US 17 in Mount Pleasant.

Sweetgrass baskets are made from – you guessed it – sweetgrass! A native plant, sweetgrass is basically nondescript and unremarkable most of the year. But in late September and October, the delicate haze of its rosy plume really catches your eye.

— Sweetgrass Basketmaker | © Nina Uccello —

Sweetgrass baskets are valued for their complexity, their beauty, and their utility. They also serve to remind us of the rich African heritage brought to this country by slaves. The baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, and learning to coil baskets "so tightly they could hold water" was an important rite of passage for many tribal youths.

Long used on plantations to winnow rice, the baskets became imperative after the Civil War. Newly freed blacks had little or no money to set up their homes, and this time-honored skill served them in good stead. They were able to take natural materials found along rivers and in trees, and shape them into useful vessels for the house and field. In the early 1900s, basketmakers started selling their creations to Northern tourists. In this way, many were able to support their families during a time that offered few other possibilities.

— Sweetgrass Baskets | © Dana Elliott —

These days, sweetgrass baskets are no mere roadside novelty. The craft has developed into a fine art. One Lowcountry basketmaker was awarded the coveted MacArthur Grant last year, which comes complete with a check for $500,000! Sweetgrass baskets can be found in museums and art collections all over the United States, including the White House Collection of Arts and Crafts, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of African American History in Detroit.

— Goldenrod & Sweetgrass | © Elizabeth McConnell of Mt Pleasant —

In the coming months, SCIWAY will create a complete guide to South Carolina's sweetgrass baskets – including information about the four ways in which the art has become threatened, as well as what some hard-working people are doing to help. In the meantime, enjoy a few more interesting facts related to our state handcraft!
  • Today sweetgrass baskets are made mostly by women. However, during slavery, men traditionally made the large work baskets used in rice fields. After the Civil War, the Penn Center near Beaufort offered classes in basketry – for the gents, not the ladies!

  • Sweetgrass is a relatively recent addition to Lowcountry baskets. For the first 250 years, they were made primarily from bulrush, which was stronger and better suited to plantation use. Sweetgrass crept into the mix in the early 1900s, when the baskets began to be sold to tourists. This important ingredient 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 pleasant scent, which many compare to the smell of fresh hay.

  • The traditional Gullah-style coiled basket differs from typical weaving techniques like plaiting or twisting. Instead, dried sweetgrass is bundled and held together by coils of saw palmetto fronds. Bulrush and pine needles are often combined with the sweetgrass for decoration and strength.

  • Ida Jefferson Wilson set up the first sweetgrass basket stand along US 17 in Mount Pleasant – now officially designated the "Sweetgrass Basketmakers Highway." After being fired from Boone Hall Plantation in the 1930s, Ida put a few baskets on a chair and sold one her very first day. Word of her success spread quickly through the community, and she was soon joined by others.

    Ida Jefferson Wilson
    Ida Jefferson Wilson | Courtesy of Yale University

  • The Lowcountry has been inundated with "seagrass" baskets, an Asian counterpart which looks a lot like sweetgrass to the undiscerning eye. These baskets are much less expensive than sweetgrass, mainly because they are not as well made. They are being widely sold in gift shops, often alongside other local products. Every time someone buys one of these imitation baskets, the profit goes elsewhere instead of remaining in our community.

Be sure to also check the three other South Carolina symbols we enjoy each fall – the glorious goldenrod, the elegant eastern tiger swallowtail, and the wonderful wild turkey!

Goldenrod Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Wild Turkey

© 2009 SCIway.net, LLC. "SCIWAY News"™ is written by the team at SCIWAY – with a lot of help from people throughout South Carolina. ISSN: 1527-3903.

Our mailing address is PO Box 13318, James Island, South Carolina 29422.

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