The History of Sweetgrass Baskets
Slaves in the low country along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia frequently originated from western Africa and shared similar language and culture. The blend of African and European developed into a unique culture called Gullah that exists today in Sea Islands along the southeastern coast and retains many West African traditions.
One of the most visible traditions is a unique method of "sewing" baskets made of sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes or Muhlenbergia capillaries depending on who's doing the describing). Sweetgrass is a fine bladed, sweet vanilla fragranced perennial grass that grows behind coastal sand dunes in moist soils. Rather than using the weaving technique of most basketmakers, Gullah basketmakers bundle dried sweetgrass and coil it into baskets held together by sewing the coils with thin strands of saw palmetto leaves. Dark reddish-brown bulrush and pine needles are often interwoven with the light colored sweetgrass to add color and patterns as well as the added strength of the bulrush. Today, sweetgrass baskets have become a cherished and sought after Lowcountry art form with the majority of basketmakers centered in the Charleston/ Mt. Pleasant area of coastal South Carolina. Residents and visitors to the Lowcountry buy and display sweetgrass baskets in their homes with the same intent and enthusiasm that they would for any other fine piece of art.
More than display pieces, however, sweetgrass baskets are durable in use and will last indefinitely with minimal care. Baskets around our home find utility for beautifully housing fruits and breads, car keys and wallets, and outgoing mail. And then there are special pieces that sit proudly on the buffet with no other utility than to display their careful craftsmanship and the artist's skill of design. Large, complex pieces can take months to complete and are increasingly being purchased by collectors and museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History.
Sweetgrass basketry is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. The tradition has been threatened, however, by declines in habitat for sweetgrass due to coastal development. The Historical Society of Charleston is establishing reserves for sweetgrass on Sullivan's Island, just north of Charleston, in recognition of the culture and history represented by sweetgrass baskets. We are delighted and honored to work with select talented Lowcountry South Carolina basketmakers to bring you fine handcrafted sweetgrass baskets.
Care for sweetgrass baskets by cleaning gently with a soapy soft brush or cloth. Rinse thoroughly with cold water and let air dry.