Weaving the Past into the Future
Beyond Charleston’s rich history, cobblestone streets, and elegant architecture lies a handmade treasure deeply rooted in the African American heritage of the Lowcountry — the art of sweetgrass basketry.
Representing both a symbol and a lifeline for formerly enslaved people over three centuries, these intricately woven gold-and-brown masterpieces can be found in marketplaces and galleries throughout the greater Charleston area.
The story of sweetgrass basketry begins in Barbados and West Africa, where young girls have honed their skills for generations, coiling shukublay baskets so tightly that they can hold water. When enslaved Africans arrived in South Carolina during the 17th century, they brought this traditional basketweaving knowledge with them. They soon discovered that the marshes of the Lowcountry harbored an abundance of soft, fine sweetgrass that could be woven in much the same way as the native grasses of their homeland.
Using only a simple tool called a nailbone — made by cutting the bowls off old silver spoons and honing the severed end to a sharp point — basketweavers push palmetto fronds through coils of dried sweetgrass to create the foundation of each basket. Bulrush reeds and pine needles join the mix to strengthen and decorate baskets as they progress.
Enslaved people used the baskets to winnow rice chaff from the grain, carry cotton, and store dried foods — boosting productivity on South Carolina’s plantations. Slaves who could produce suitably tight baskets were highly valued. Because mothers passed their knowledge on to their daughters, slave owners would keep basketweaving families intact — rather than selling off children — to encourage the development of the skill.
After emancipation, Gullah Geechee families continued to pass basketweaving secrets to each new generation. Over the centuries, the baskets have become increasingly ornate as artisans bring their own personal flair to the work. In 2008, Charleston artist Mary Jackson won the $500,000 MacArthur Grant in recognition of her sculptured, undulating designs.
While Jackson’s work can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars (if you can find it), even pieces done by unknown artisans are pricey. The tiniest baskets and jewelry pieces start around $15. As the size, intricacy, and time required to produce a work increase, prices rapidly jump into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Today, both daughters and sons begin to learn basketry as young as four years old. At Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant, basket weaver Sharntel Scott sells her creations outside the gates of the plantation house.
“My mom and grandma started teaching me when I was six years old,” she says, deftly twisting a still-green palmetto frond around coils of sweetgrass as she begins to fashion a new basket. “I don’t know how many generations were doing it before them. I’ve taught my daughter and my son how to do it, too.”
While her family appears poised to carry on the tradition, others are seeing younger generations turn away.
“I’ve been doing this for 70 years now but I’m the last one,” says Gloria Walker, who sells her baskets at the central Charleston Public Market several days each week. “My children know how, but they’re not in Charleston anymore.”
She reflects quietly as she packs up her work at the end of a long, hot day at the bustling market.
“There’s no one left to carry this on. I’m the last.”