If you’ve taken a Bluegreen vacation to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, you have no doubt seen the beautiful, hand-woven baskets made of sweetgrass. Their unique patterns are made into different shapes and sizes, and can be used as ornamental entryway pieces to your home or beautiful bowls for everything from keys and mail to laundry. Their design is sturdy, yet delicate on the eye, and you will only find them where there is a history of West African immigration. Today, sweetgrass basket making is based in the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina area. Stands all along Highway 17, the main highway that runs along the coast of South Carolina, display baskets and other sweetgrass-spun mementos for sale.
Where Sweetgrass Baskets Come From
Sweetgrass basket weaving has been a part of South Carolina low-country culture for nearly 400 years. A product of West African culture, these baskets reached the Charleston area in the late 1600s when South Carolina farmers began bringing in slaves to work in the rice, cotton and indigo fields. Slaveholders would also enlist women and men who were no longer working the fields to weave extra baskets, in order to sell them to neighboring plantations to create extra income.
The most popular baskets produced were large storage containers, for vegetables, fruits and grains. Another common creation was the winnowing basket, a fan-like basket used to separate the grain from the chaff of rice. These baskets also helped to separate pests from stored grains.
After the Civil War and Emancipation, a change in the basketmaking occurred. The focus of the basket changed from harvesting to storage. Women began weaving smaller baskets for serving food and holding household items. The transition kept rolling, as basketmaking evolved from an agricultural necessity to an art form. By the 1900s, basketmaking was a popular business. Catalogues were ordering them to sell to consumers, small boutiques were enlisting weavers to stock their shelves, Bluegreen vacationers began purchasing them as mementos of a great trip and tourists were asking “how much?”
And after looking at the craftsmanship that goes into these beautifully woven pieces, you will understand why. Each basket reflects the artist’s skill and personality. The value rises with age, and if cared for, will last indefinitely. Museums hold grass baskets that are well over 100 years old. The grasses used to create these baskets come from the low-lying wetlands, meaning they will not be harmed by water.
The Charleston Market, as well as small trinket shops and stands throughout the city of Charleston, are great places to find a bit of West African culture. The women who weave the baskets oftentimes still speak Gullah, a pidgin language created by the combination of English and African languages, which adds to the whole experience of buying a piece of culture. By supporting the individuals who carry on the tradition of basketmaking, you support the Gullah culture.