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
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 - 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
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
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.
Mt. Pleasant's sweetgrass basket makers need to go further afield than in the
past to obtain materials.
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
Harriet Bailem Brown Sweetgrass Basket Association member and fifth generation basketmaker
from Mt. Pleasant, SC demonstrates and teaches this craft to others.
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
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
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 Vanderhorst Several members of the Vanderhost family of Mt. Pleasant, SC make coiled Sweetgrass baskets in
the lowcountry tradition.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.