Sweetgrass basket making is a family tradition handed down from generation to generation; primarily along the South Carolina coast. Basketry skills came here with enslaved Africans more than 300 years ago and the craft is practiced today by their descendants. Sweetgrass baskets are a visible link to African culture and heritage, with similar baskets made in Africa today.
This art form is unique to the Gullah people of South Carolina’s lowcountry, where basket making skills are taught to young children, who begin by making the coiled bottoms before progressing to complete baskets.
Historically, baskets were made for farm work or household use; shallow fanner baskets for winnowing rice or for husking peas; deeper head-tote baskets used by street vendors to balance heavy loads on their heads; laundry baskets and sewing baskets.
Today’s baskets still serve useful purposes, but are probably more often collected as folk art.
Vera Manigault is an 8th generation basket maker and one of South Carolina’s most beloved artisans. Her baskets have been featured on numerous national television shows and magazine articles and she is proud to have made the baskets featured in The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and shot entirely on location in South Carolina. In addition, her sweetgrass earrings grace the ears of Anita Singleton-Prather in “Circle Unbroken – A Gullah Journey from Africa to America.”
Early sweetgrass baskets were sewn with a sharpened beef rib bone, later replaced with a large, flattened nail. Most contemporary basketmakers use the handle of a spoon or a fork that has been filed and sanded to their individual preference. Each basket maker develops a unique personal style often recognizable by other artisans.
Sweetgrass baskets are made from natural plant materials, primarily:
- Marsh Bulrush
- Longleaf Pine Needles
- Unopened center leaves of the Cabbage Palm, the state tree of South Carolina
A disappearing art form:
The materials needed for baskets grow in agricultural areas along rural roads and in the marsh; areas where stinging insects, snakes and alligators thrive, making collection a safety hazard. Not long ago it was easier to find basket materials, but modern basket makers are facing difficulty ensuring the viability of their craft. As South Carolina’s coastal islands are being developed into gated resort communities more and more public access is denied. Without provisions for the collection of native plant materials, the art of the Sweetgrass basket and the cultural heritage it represents may be lost forever.