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Coiled Gullah Sweetgrass Basketry

The traditional coiled Gullah style sweetgrass basket is made in the South Carolina Low Country in and around Mt. Pleasant in Charleston County and on the Sea Islands - a group of islands off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Florida. The sweetgrass basket art form was brought to this country in the latter half of the seventeenth century by West Africans who adapted the basketry traditions of their homeland to the available indigenous materials to make work baskets that were needed on the rice plantations. This type of basket is coil-sewn rather than plaited or twined. The sharpened end of a silver spoon "sewing bone" was used to create openings in the coil as stitching progressed. The most common material used as the core bundle in early work baskets was black rush (Juncus roemerianus) known locally as bulrush, rushel or needlegrass. The coils were bound with strips of white oak (Quercus alba) or saw palmetto stem (Serenoa repens). Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) commonly known as purple muhly grass became popular only at the beginning of the twentieth century, when makers in Mount Pleasant began making "show baskets" to sell to the tourists along Route 17. Later light duty baskets are commonly made of Sweetgrass stitched with palm leaf (Sabal palmetto). Long Leaf Pine needles (Pinus palustris) or bulrush may be added to the coil as a decorative element.

Traditionally this type of basket was made in shapes used on the southern plantations such as the rice fanner. "Fannah" baskets made this way were used to process rice. A person would fan rice by tossing it in the air to separate the chaff from the hull. West Africans still use this type of large, round, shallow basket when farming rice the old way. Occasionally overlay coils in a spiral or other geometric design are incorporated to the basic form for decorative purposes. More recently decorative versions of this basket form have been made by basketmakers who sold their wares from roadside stands along Route 17 outside Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Currently these baskets are also available at street vendors and market locations in Charleston as well as in online shops.

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art
by Dale Rosengarten
A new look at the 300 year old tradition of Lowcountry African-American baskets and basket makers from Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.
Available in Hardcover or Paperback

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art - Touring Exhibit
This exhibit organized by the Museum for African Art in collaboration with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina features approximately 225 objects including baskets from the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia and from diverse regions of Africa, as well as African sculpture from the rice-growing societies which, through the agency of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, exported their cultures to America. Opening at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC, on 29 August 2008 through 30 November 2008: Will open in New York in 2010 as one of the inaugural exhibitions at the Museum for African Art's new building in Harlem. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art is available for travel. Charleston City Paper Visual Arts Review

Annie Scott Gullah Basketmaker
Baskets made of sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) which is harvested in the spring and summer by "pullers," who slip it out of its roots, like knives from sheaths. It is a long-stemmed plant that grows near the ocean behind the dune line and along the boundaries between marsh and forest. Weavers put fresh grasses out in the sun to dry for several days to several weeks, depending on the season before sewing them coil upon coil.

Annual Celebration Of Gullah Culture
The Gullah culture, a blend of West African, European and Native American cultures, became the lifestyle of West African slaves isolated from the mainland. The word "Gullah" is believed to be a corruption of Angola or "'Gola," the origin point of many slaves who were brought to the Carolinas. The Gullah remember their past and look toward the future preservation of their cultures which is distinguished by the crafts of sweet grass basket sewing, quilt making and fish net weaving in this annual festival.

Basket-Weaving Is Threatened in South Carolina
This news story about how rapid development has negatively impacted Gullah Sweetgrass Basketry includes a multimedia slide show that features African American basketmakers Nakia Wigfall, Alma Washington, Henrietta Snype and others from in and around Charleston, Mount Pleasant and along U.S. Route 17 in SC.

Basketmakers Face Stiff Competition from Knockoffs
Charleston's sweetgrass basketmakers are finding it difficult to compete with baskets made in China. Lowcountry sweetgrass basket "sewers" are concerned about cheap knockoffs from abroad. The article includes tips about some of the telltale characteristics of an import so that collectors can recognize the difference between the two.

Grass Shortage
Mt. Pleasant's sweetgrass basket makers need to go further afield than in the past to obtain materials.

Grow Your Own Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes or Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Help sustain the tradition of South Carolina Low Country basket making by growing your own plot of sweetgrass or include some plants in your landscape.


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Gullah Tradition
A culture in and of itself with unique customs, language and aspects composed of the blacks of the Sea Islands and coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeast Florida.

Harriet Bailem Brown
Sweetgrass Basket Association member and fifth generation basketmaker from Mt. Pleasant, SC demonstrates and teaches this craft to others.

Joseph Foreman
Brother to Mary Foreman Jackson and one of the few men preserving the art of Sweetgrass basketry, an art that expresses the Gullah culture and heritage of his ancestors.

History Of The Sweetgrass Basket Traditionn
Filling the basket stands along highway 17 North in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina today, these coiled sweetgrass baskets have a 300 year old tradition. Using only a knife and the handle of a spoon that has been filed down smooth to create an awl, these baskets were sewn of core materials like sweetgrass and pine needle stitched with palmetto leave binders.

Mae Hall
Once sold mainly from roadside stands along Route 17 North in Mt. Pleasant South Carolina near Charleston, online ordering is now available from makers of Gullah style coiled sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) baskets. Longleaf pine needles are used to decorate baskets and strips of palmetto leaves are used to stitch the coils together. History and and plant information is included.

Mary Jackson Sweetgrass Basketmaker
Well known as a sweetgrass basketmaker and teacher of this basketry style indigenous to the Low Country tidewaters of the American Southeast.

Mary Jackson - 2008 Winner of the MacArthur Fellowship
Charleston Sweetgrass basketmaker wins the $500,000.00 genius award for her lifetime of pushing the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry in new and remarkable directions.

Mary Jackson - Threads of Genius
Vignettes and musings on MacArthur fellow Mary Jackson and the classic art of basket making. Includes video interview.

Mary Jackson - 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Mary is the winner of another significant fellowship. In this video, Craft in America explores Mary Jackson’s work as a basketmaker and the history and tradition of basketweaving in South Carolina.

Mary Jackson - Vase With Handle Sweetgrass Basket
Coiled sweetgrass, pine needle and palmetto basket presented by the James Renwick Alliance.

Mary Vanderhorst
Several members of the Vanderhost family of Mt. Pleasant, SC make coiled Sweetgrass baskets in the lowcountry tradition.

Muhlenbergia sericea
Family: Poaceae; Genus: Muhlenbergia, (common names; Dune Hairgrass, Purple Muhly, Sweetgrass) the "sweetgrass" used by basketmakers in the Low Country previously called Muhlenbergia filipes has since genetics testing by researchers in 2003 been renamed Muhlenbergia sericia reflecting the fact that the grasses native to two different places are different genetically.

Nakia Wigfall
Multigenerational Sweetgrass Basket-maker of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She is the Executive Director of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina's Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival. Her work is profiled in this online video.

RICE AND BASKETS: A SELF GUIDED HISTORY TOUR OF THE CAROLINA COAST
Project and film produced in 2008 by Center for the Documentary at the College of Charleston, in association with: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Charleston, SC; Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association in Mt. Pleasant, SC and Museum for African Art in New York.

Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the SC Lowcountry Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the SC Lowcountry
Book by Dale Rosengarten. Details sweetgrass basketmaking from its roots in Africa through its development on the rice plantations to its current renaissance as an art form sought after by collectors and tourists.

Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival
Held annually during June in Mt. Pleasant, SC. A weekend celebration of the legacy of the sweetgrass basket makers of Christ Church Parish in Mount Pleasant. The Gullah basket making tradition can be traced to West African slaves brought to live on South Carolina lowcountry rice plantations and has been carefully handed down from one generation to the next since their arrival. Entertainment includes performances by local singers, dancers and drummers. Local food vendors provide traditional Gullah delicacies.

SWEETGRASS BASKETRY: THE POLITICAL ECOLOGY OF AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ART IN THE SOUTH CAROLINA LOWCOUNTRY
Thesis written by Brian Charles Grabbatin as a part of a Master of Science degree in Environmental Studies at the College of Charleston in April of 2008.

Sweetgrass Basketry Workshops
Classes can be scheduled for groups of twelve or more at Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown, SC.

Sweetgrass Baskets From The McKissick Museum
Baskets are among the traditional folk art in the crafts collections of the McKissick Museum in Columbia, South Carolina. Discusses the African origins of the craft of the handmade baskets of sweetgrass that are coil-sewn with a thin continuous foundation coil of sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) and/or longleaf pine needles sewn spirally on itself using strips of palmetto leaf. Teachers Guide

Sweetgrass: History, Basketry and Constraints To The Industry
Essay by R.J. Dufault, M. Jackson and S.K. Salvo details the history of the sweetgrass industry, identification of sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), sweetgrass basket construction and the constraints on the industry caused by destruction of plant habitat. The Mt. Pleasant Basketmakers' Association is studying the possibility of raising sweetgrass as a row crop.

Gullah Sweetgrass Videos on YouTube


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