Weaver doll beside
a new sweetgrass basket
by Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator, 2007
Edited by Grace Morris Cordial, 2012
in the Lowcountry
the traditions are ancient, sweetgrass baskets
are a recent development in our Sea Islander communities
-- as we learn in Dale Rosengartens book, Row
Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina
handmade baskets of sweetgrass (sewn with longleaf
pine needles and strips of palmetto leaf) command
good prices at roadside stands or on the City Market
and streets of Charleston. Enslaved people had been making
coiled baskets (an African technique different from
the European weave) since the late 1600s, and the
Sea Island baskets are related to those of Angola,
Senegambia, and the Congo.
most common material used to be black rush (a marsh
grass) bound with strips of white oak or saw palmetto
stem. Sweetgrass became popular only at the beginning
of the twentieth century, when a black community in
Mount Pleasant (across the Cooper River from Charleston)
began making "show baskets" from the material.
These baskets provided much-needed income in the aftermath
of hurricanes and boll weevil infestation. Tourists
bought so many baskets that sweetgrass won out over
more traditional varieties.
basket purchased in the Charleston Market
in the 1970s
(By courtesy of Virginia Adams)
by Dennis Adams
( Muhlenbergia filipes)
is a long-stemmed plant that grows in tufts
behind the second dune line from the ocaean or along
the boundaries between marsh and woods," wrote
Rosengarten. "Here, salt-tolerant trees and shrubs
have pinned down the sand and stopped it from shifting,
creating a stable barrier from tidal flooding."
Sweetgrass is "prized" by the Mount Pleasant
sewer system for its flood-controlling qualities.
St. Helena Island , however, rush work baskets continued
into the first half of the twentieth century. Though
the Penn School offered training in "Native Island
Basketry" for fifty years, today black rush is
used mainly to strengthen and decorate certain types
of sweetgrass baskets.
early rice industry in the Lowcountry owed its success
to a particular type of black rush basket, the "fanner".
Slaves "fanned" threshed rice into the air
from the baskets to let the wind separate the chaff.
On the plantations, the male slaves wove fences, granaries,
traps, and heavy field baskets. It was up to the women
to make the smaller, fancier baskets for the households.
Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, is home to a massive sweet-grass basket collection. The Lowcountry Digital Library makes it possible to view forty-two images of baskets from Avery's archives online using the following link: http://bit.ly/Tsnc7x.
Casey, in The Encyclopedia of Africa South
of the Sahara, describes two basic methods
of basketry and mat making used on the content of
Africa well before slaves came to America. The first
of the Old-World methods is plaiting, where braids
of wood strips, reeds, grasses or roots are twined
or twilled into many different patterns. But it is
from the second method that our local sweetgrass baskets
descend: "sewn basketry, often called coil-sewn,
involves a thin continuous foundation, usually of
grass, which is sewn spirally on itself, using split
palm leaf, raffia, or similar fiber. Some baskets
are so tightly sewn that they can be used for containers
of liquid, being watertight when the fibers have swelled.
Other sewn basketry may have the foundation elements
plaited or lying in parallel rows , sewn together
and then sewn to the rest of the basket."
Africa, a basket can be more than just a basket. Other
daily uses include roof and wall framework, fish and
animal traps, beer strainers, flour sifters, clothing
and hats (including ceremonial headdresses and crowns),
and dance masks.
1924 Penn Center annual report lists the selection
and prices of the "St. Helena baskets" of
the time. The 1924 price appears first for each item,
followed by the estimated present-day (2005) value
Types and Prices (1924)
Prices (1924 with
baskets, about 10" x 13 ½":
($27.13 in 2005 buying power)
baskets, about 12" x 16":
baskets, about 16" x 24":
fanners (trays), about 2" x 18":
to $12.50 ($108.52 to $135.65)
mats, 6 inch set:
set $3.00 ($32.56)
sewing baskets, about 8" across top:
shuck door mats:
Recommended Reading about Sweet-grass Baskets:
746.412 COA Sweetgrass baskets and the Gullah tradition by Joyce V. Coakley. Arcadia Publishing, 2005. (BDC, Local History sections)
746.412 ROS Row upon Row: sea grass baskets of the Lowcountry by Dale Rosengarten. McKissick Museum, 1986. (BDC, STH Gullah-Geechee Room, Local History sections)
J E BEL Beauty, her basket by Sandra Belton; illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Greenwillow Books/ Amistad, 2004. (Children's Picture Books at the Branch Libraries)
E RAV Circle unbroken: the story of a basket and its people by Margot Theis Raven; pictures by E.B. Lewis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. (Children's Picture Books at the Branch Libraries)
Sweet-Grass Baskets [BDC vertical file] contains clippings of articles about traditional lowcountry coiled basket making.