The beautiful art of sweetgrass basket-making is an example of an African cultural heritage that was brought over to the Lowcountry from enslaved Africans and passed down through generations here in Charleston. This African craft of coiled basketry first appeared in South Carolina during the late 17th century. Originally designed as a tool for the production of rice, the first known baskets were actually used as a tool for winnowing rice. These agricultural baskets were not only made of sweetgrass, but bulrush and split oak, as well, which were materials that were also commonly found in parts of Western Africa. When the enslaved African people were brought over to the Lowcountry, they were pleasantly surprised to see these materials so prevalent in the Lowcountry.
Sweetgrass basket making is a craft that is learned at a very young age and requires a great deal of creativity since there are no standard patterns that basket makers use. Because each artist practices his or her own style the sweetgrass baskets you’ll find in the Lowcountry are each completely unique. And it wasn’t until the 1890s that the sweetgrass baskets began to be used as household staples as opposed to agricultural tools. Today, the sweetgrass baskets you’ll find do not contain bulrush and split oak. Instead, the baskets usually contain only palmetto and sweetgrass.
As Charleston’s tourism industry soared, so did sweetgrass basket sales. Today, you’ll find sweetgrass basket makers in the Charleston City Market, along Highway 17, and sold in local craft stores, as well as showcased in local museums.
The State of South Carolina named the Sweetgrass Baskets the official state handcraft in 2006 and during that same year a part of Highway 17 North was chosen to be named the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway.
If you would like to learn more about the art of sweetgrass basket making, stop by the Memorial Waterfront Park and visit the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion. This open aired pavilion is a dedication to the men and women who have carried on this basket making tradition for several generations. This facility provides a venue for the craftsmen and women to sell their wares. Kiosks and panels will provide the history behind this tradition. This is one of America’s oldest and most important African arts.