Along the South Carolina coast just north of Charleston in Mt. Pleasant, the highway is dotted with tiny wooden shacks, pieced together with weathered wood, old tables, and lawn chairs. During the day, artisans fill these huts with handmade sweetgrass baskets.
The art of sweetgrass basketmaking comes to us from Africa, where it is a significant part of their cultural heritage. According to M. Jeannette Gallard Lee, author of the brochure Sweetgrass Baskets of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, “Coiled basketry, one of the oldest African crafts in America, appeared in South Carolina during the late 17th century. The first known baskets in the Lowcountry were fanner baskets used for winnowing rice. Originally designed as a tool of rice production and processing, baskets had a very real and significant cultural connection for the displaced Africans. They were used in the planting and harvesting of the coastal money crops – rice, cotton, and others. Agricultural baskets were made of bulrush, sweetgrass and split oak.”
When I asked about her family’s tradition, Miss Julia Howard, my wonderful basketmaker, told me “I’ve been making baskets since I was just a little girl at my grandmamma’s knee.” As we chatted, she continued basketweaving and demonstrated for me how the blades of sweetgrass are tightly gathered and shaped into coils that are then sewn together. To add color variation and pattern, basketweavers like Miss Julia often add long needle pine straw to the grasses.
Sweetgrass baskets require very little care to maintain their aesthetic appeal – just a little soap and water and a good air drying when necessary. These beautiful baskets are not only practical, but they also stand in recognition of how Lowcountry culture will be forever enhanced by the creative vision inspired by Africa’s artisan heritage.
To learn more about sweetgrass baskets, visit the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival website.