Charleston is a city for savoring. The charm, sophistication—and drawl—just sticks to travelers like syrup spread across the cobblestone streets stretching to the City Market. Grand Georgian architecture rises from the sidewalks and hospitality is inside every colorful doorway. And though one could choose a multitude of intoxicating paths to embrace this American treasure, a surefire way to get elbow deep in its culture is to spend an afternoon with a sweetgrass basket weaver. This traditional, Gullah-Gheechee art form has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. On many days, several generations still work together on their baskets while critiquing one another’s designs and technical skills.
The Gullah-Gheechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. Gullah inhabitants throughout the lowcountry region are primarily native to the Krio and Mende populations—today’s Sierra Leone—of West Africa. This community created a Creole culture in an effort to preserve their identity through African languages, community life, and trades such as basket-weaving.
Nearly 400 years old, the art form is still important to the tight-knit families and communities that practice it. Originally bringing skills in rice farming to the coastal region, Gullahs created one of the most successful industries in early America. Shallow sweetgrass baskets were used as winnowing sieves or “fanners” to separate rice seed from the chaff. Today sweetgrass baskets are highly sought after by Charleston visitors, avid collectors, and institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
The process leading up to sowing the basket itself is very simple. Bulrush is a supple but strong grass that thrives in sandy coastal soil. While bulrush is used for larger baskets, Muhlenbergia filipes, or sweetgrass, is used in smaller baskets. Though not as strong—why these baskets were used for separating seed from the chaff rather than collecting and storing vegetables—the appeal in using sweetgrass is its fragrance similar to fresh hay. Traditionally men of all ages gathered supplies. After drying—usually three to five days—the grass changes to a beige color and shrinks. Although the materials are free, the end product is labor intensive.
This is when the women step in to the shared tradition.
While skill level and design styles vary, most begin with a single knot. Weaving coils of bundled grass around the knot, the artists hands work diligently with care in an act similar to crocheting. Younger generations of the family join in to keep the Gullah culture alive. Typically weavers will sow baskets six days each week with an average basket needing about ten hours to complete. A moderate basket sells for a price around $350 to $375. The time and price increase with the size and design of the basket. The most intricate baskets come from highly skilled artists.
The most convenient venue is the City Market on Meeting Street in the heart of downtown. If you are someone that enjoys comparison shopping, this is your spot. There are over 50 artists that sell at the market. Four Corners at the Broad and Meeting Street intersection is another good option without leaving the downtown area. Simple baskets start around $40. For the collector seeking a rarity, the price can reach upwards of $8,000.
If you can travel a short distance, drive about fifteen minutes to Mt. Pleasant on Highway 17. Although the original stands that were once eligible for the National Register of Historic Places have been demolished, the same families are there. Many have sold their work along the highway for years but were forced to move due to highway expansion. Drivers should look for wooden structures farther from the road. However, this is where visitors can really connect with the artists and listen to their stories. Away from the crowded market and bustling stalls, sit with generations of weavers and watch them work. Ask questions. Get involved. This is an opportunity to immerse yourself into a culture that continues to become more rare.
If the price tag is a hesitation, check for the “Certified Authentic Handmade in Charleston” seal. This indicates the product is locally made. Value increases with age and many baskets will last indefinitely with proper care. Some examples are more than 100 years old. Water will not harm these baskets thanks to the wetland grass from which it is made. Use a soft brush or cloth while washing in cold soapy water. Be sure to rinse thoroughly. Save a piece of history with a little bit of care.
Photo: liz west, CC-BY
Molly Harris is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.