Lowcountry Sweetgrass Baskets

In Mount Pleasant, a community just north of Charleston, flimsy wooden stands line a stretch of Highway 17, representing a living, perpetual tie to the rice-growing heritage and its direct connection to West Africa. For it is here that vendors sell the distinctively coiled "sweetgrass" basket.

Originally, these baskets were used for work on the rice plantation. The "fannuh" basket, a large, round winnowing tray, was used to process rice after it was harvested. The chaff was separated from the hull by tossing it high into the air on the fannuh basket, repeating the process over and over until separation was complete. Even today, the people of Sierra Leone continue to grow and harvest rice the old way, using baskets in the process.

Creating sweetgrass baskets is a craft handed down from generation to generation. Entire families, descendants of the slaves who brought this craft from Africa, make baskets—from great-grandparent down to the youngster just learning the craft. Each family has its unique style, and each basket sewer (the baskets are sewn, not woven), his or her own distinct signature.

Whether the baskets are round, oval or square, they all begin from one tightly coiled center and build out in radiating coils. The "sewing" comes from binding strips of palmetto and white oak, which tightly join together coils of local grasses. Spartina (marsh grass), needle grass, broom sedge, longleaf pine needles, palmetto fronds, comshucks and the long-stemmed, fragrant sweetgrass all create tone and texture. The sewing needle is an adaptation of the old-fashioned embroidery punch—usually a spoon handle, bone or nail. No modem methods are used, or necessary.

Both the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Natural History have recognized the sweetgrass basket as an important cultural art form and one that should be protected and nurtured for the future. Despite this recognition, basket-making is seriously threatened by a number of factors, particularly the availability of sweetgrass. Areas where sweetgrass is found are rapidly being replaced by hotels and condominiums. Some resorts, however, have begun to allow sweetgrass harvesting, and experiments are being conducted to raise sweetgrass as a cultivated crop.