From Everyday to Extraordinary
Unknown to many who seek it, a favorite Lowcountry souvenir has a dark past. Although prized today by collectors the world over, sweetgrass baskets were once common tools of the enslaved workers on area rice plantations. As the art of basketry has passed from generation to generation, the descendants of those original crafters have made the art a livelihood as well as a tribute to those who came before them.
Roots in Rice
Many early 18th century plantation owners in the Carolina and Georgia colonies chose to focus their efforts on the cultivation of rice. Realizing the necessity of workers familiar with that particular crop, planters "imported" this help from West African nations where rice was already grown. But the slaves themselves were not the only imports. They brought with them their cherished African traditions, including language, religion, and crafts, adapting them all to the circumstances and resources of their new home.
As they had in their homeland, slaves made baskets from available materials for everyday use both in the home and in the field. Generally used for the storage of dry goods, some baskets were woven so tightly that they could be used to store liquids. A specific style of flat basket called a “fanner” (see photo at left) was used in the winnowing of rice. After harvesting and pounding the rice, slaves would use a fanner to toss it aloft, where the wind would blow away the husk, or chaff. Intended for heavy use, these first Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets were so solidly crafted that a few still survive today, centuries after they were first woven.
These special Lowcountry treasures are unique from other baskets throughout the world in that they are woven using a sewing technique rather than plaiting or twisting. Employing a West African tradition of coiling, dried sweetgrass is bundled together and coiled in circles, held together with strips of white oak bark or saw palmetto. Contrary to popular belief, though, sweetgrass baskets are not made from a species of plant by that name. In fact, the baskets are generally made from a variety of needlegrass rush, its sweet aroma reminiscent of drying hay--and the source of its common nickname.
Modern weavers of sweetgrass baskets often add longleaf pine needles to their piece, producing intricate designs without dyes by alternating the natural colors of the dried yellow sweetgrass with reddish-brown pine needles. The tools needed for basket production haven't changed in hundreds of years: a knife or scissors for cutting grasses to length when necessary, and a “sewing bone.” This special tool is handmade from flattened nails or rib bones of a cow or pig or, more commonly these days, a filed-down teaspoon handle. This “bone” is used to tuck the palmetto strips around the coils of grass and needles.
A Dying Art
After the Civil War and the dissolution of the Lowcountry slave plantations, many freed men, women, and children remained in the area and created their own Gullah culture, combining the traditions of their various African tribes with those of their American home. The art of sweetgrass basketry was passed from generation to generation, allowing us to enjoy its beauty today even though its days as an everyday practical item have mostly faded. But this long-standing tradition is at risk. In this day of video games and cell phones, fewer members of the younger generation are choosing to learn this historic craft. Adding to the problem, modern development in coastal river and marsh areas encroach on the habitats of natural sweetgrasses. With materials in limited supply, and potential apprentices unwilling, this precious art may be lost by the end of this century.
Despite--or perhaps because of--this unfortunate situation, today's artisans continue to take great pride in their work. In addition to colorful designs, many baskets today feature handles and swirls that weavers of everyday fanners three hundred years ago would never have imagined. The next time you come upon a sweetgrass basket with a steep price tag, keep in mind that the cost reflects more than just the endangered materials used. It also includes the hours spent crafting, as well as the notable traditions this dying art represents.