Sweetgrass Baskets History
Sweetgrass basketry is an African art form that has been practiced continuously in South Carolina for over three hundred years. Wherever rice was grown on the South Atlantic Coast, coiled baskets were used in the harvest. During the long decline of rice production from the Civil War to World War I African American basket makers continued to Sew baskets on plantations and on the small family farms they had acquired.
All the basket shapes from this era may be seen today on basket stands along Highway 17, on street corners in Charleston and yes, even in Georgetown, South Carolina. Material, functions and techniques of construction have changed. Sweetgrass sewn with palmetto leaves have replaced bulrush bound with oak splints or palmetto butt as the preferred materials in the baskets. The wide winding trays called fanner baskets, which once served to separate the chaff from the rice, now might hold magazines. A century ago, vegetable baskets carried mountains of produce to market. Big open baskets are still made but for indoor use. Covered Storage baskets, in the Plantation Era, might have contained grain, yarn or sewing supplies. The grain they once held is long gone, but sewing and yard baskets remain staples of the trade.
The division of baskets by function has antecedents in Africa. Heavy field baskets tended to be made by men, while mats, smaller baskets for storing and serving food, and women made fancy baskets that were use inside the household. On Low Country Plantations, basket making was usually reported to have been men's work. Handicraftsmen made all the baskets that were used on the place. The baskets were designed to withstand years of hard labor. They were bond with an interlocking stitch, the binders of a row passing under the stitches of the row before.
The Gullah Basket as they are sometimes called, has been in continuous production since the 18th Century. Low Country Coiled Basketry is one of the oldest craft of African origin in America. Today Museums and art collectors through out the world purchase them. Each basket reflects the cultural heritage and history of a unique people. Each is an original sculpture that reveals the artists skill as both designer and technician. A baskets value increases with age and with proper care will last indefinitely. Examples of Low Country Coil Basketry exist today that are well over a century old.
Arts In Education Residencies
Name: Mary Graham-Grant
Address: 23 Silverleaf Court
Columbia SC 29209
Phone: (803) 783-1836
Email: [email protected]
Art Form: Sweetgrass Basketry
Specialty: Sweetgrass baskets
Format: Residencies are designed to introduce participants to a general historical overview and origin of Sweetgrass basketry along with basic construction methods, materials used and tools used in making a basket. Depending on the time allotted and the ability of participant to grasp how sweetgrass baskets are made, he/she will complete a basket/necklace.
Grades: 3th – 12th grades. 3rd graders will need adult assistance. Adult classes arranged upon request.
Availability: Statewide Residencies
Fees: Upon request (includes materials)
1st day – History of baskets and materials, start on bottom of basket (already
approximately. 2” diameter)
2nd day – Work on bottom of basket/ medallion
3rd day – Work on bottom of basket/ medallion
4th day – Start making the sides of the basket go up
5th day – finish the basket/medallion