If you’ve visited the Lowcountry you have seen women – at the City Market, at roadside stands and on street corners – weaving and selling fabulous sweetgrass baskets.
The art of weaving baskets made of sweetgrass originates in western Africa, from whence most slaves brought to the Americas were taken. As African and European cultures crashed together in the New World, the unique Gullah culture and language emerged, particularly in the rice-growing sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Sweetgrass is a fine-bladed, sweet-smelling perennial that grows around coastal sand dunes in moist soils prevalent on the SC coast. Gullah basket weavers, leaning on West African traditions, bundle dry sweetgrass and coil it into baskets held together by sewing the coils with thin strands of saw palmetto leaves. These strands are pulled so tight they hold water.
Pine needles, often reddish-brown in color, are woven in among the blond sweetgrass to add color and create patterns. Sweetgrass baskets have become a staple of Lowcountry art, beloved for their practicality as well as their beauty. They require no more than gentle cleaning with soap and cold water and will last indefinitely.
Sweetgrass basket weaving is one of the oldest African-American art forms, but it is dying out. Because of the craft and expertise that goes into their production, and their important part of American history, they are prized by collectors and displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. You can procure yours just by visiting the Charleston area and buying a basket on the street, on the roadside, or at Charleston’s City Market.