By Jim Pope
13 Feb 2014
I love to travel and, as a photographer, one of my favorite things to do is to use my images to tell stories not only about the places I go, but also of the people I see. Places & people, people & places; the two are almost always inextricably entwined, so often I will meet someone and be inspired to learn more about their place, or find some intriguing location and want to learn more about the people who live and work there. Recently when driving down route 17 in the low country of South Carolina near Charleston, I noticed several small road side frame structures. Although they looked like unoccupied fruit and vegetable stands, I knew they were most likely stands that sold sweetgrass baskets, a local craft with roots traced back to ancient times.
Sweetgrass basket weaving is a traditional African craft practiced primarily in the low country of South Carolina. The contemporary craftswomen who weave these works of art are the descendants of Africans brought to the south by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most can trace their ancestry back to the Windward, or Rice Coast of western Africa. Their ancestors were brought from this area because of their knowledge of the cultivation of rice which was, and still is, a major part of the economy of this area of the east coast of the United States.
Coiled basketry is one of the oldest African crafts. Originally made of bulrush and palm in biblical times, the materials favored in the new world were typically oak, bulrush and sweetgrass.The baskets served a practical purpose in that they were traditionally used to winnow the harvested rice. Because the exact materials used varied with the the kinds of plants available locally and with the sewing techniques of the individual, each basket was and is unique. Rather than traditional weaving methods, these baskets are sewn using a "sewing bone" or "nail bone" to interlace the basket material. Sweet grass basket making in early 18th century America was practiced primarily by men as these baskets were viewed as a necessary agricultural tool. After the end of the civil war and slavery, baskets began to yield to other implements as winnowing tools. This resulted in baskets that were more refined and popular as household objects. As this transition happened, the responsibility of crafting them also transitioned from men to women until by the 1920's sweetgrass weaving became almost the exclusive domain of women.
This tradition is still very much alive and the baskets made today reflect no less on their maker's skill, locale and preferred technique. Sweetgrass is a long bladed grass found along the southernmost coast of South Carolina. It became more popular as a primary material because it is softer and finer than bulrush, and longleaf pine needles were used to provide additional contrast and color. Palmetto was often used instead of oak as a binder. These days sweetgrass is inn decline in the low country, primarily due to commercial development and the inevitable shrinking of the coastal wetlands. While the craft doesn't seem in danger of disappearing as there are other sources of sweetgrass in Florida and North Carolina, it seems that a certain elegance of design is being lost since the materials are not always strictly local as the tradition requires.
Even so, if you are looking for fine examples of this ancient craft, Route 17 in South Carolina around Mount Pleasant near Charleston, South Carolina is still the place to find great examples. There are many roadside stands from which the makers sell directly. As I was driving along this highway recently, I stopped at random at one of these stands and met a remarkable woman. Her name is Anna Dawson. She was very willing to tell her story and demonstrate the way these baskets are made. Traditionally, she said, the craft is still passed from grandmother to granddaughter. Does it skip an generation or is this because the mothers are too busy working at more traditional jobs and don't have time to weave? I didn't think to ask, but she said she learned how to make them from her grandmother years ago and is now teaching her granddaughter. Her preferred materials are Bulrush, sweetgrass, pine needles and palm. These give a subtle richness of texture and color to each basket.