Made in America: Sweetgrass Earrings and the Ancient Craft of Gullah Basket Weaving
Posted on February 03 2021
Emma, Sameka and the Zoom call where I saw sweet grass creations for the first time (you can see me in the upper left corner too).
Having never seen such weaving in my home country before I set out to learn the history of the craft. I started by asking Sharon for her story:
"I was born and raised in Mount Pleasant, SC. I am a 6th generation sweetgrass basket weaver. I was taught to weave at the age of seven. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all taught me different styles and techniques of weaving. I have been weaving all throughout my adult life part-time. I started making sweetgrass jewelry about 10 years ago as a fun way to show case my love for the art. The recent pandemic has forced me to rely on craft as a source of income."
Turns out she is one of the keepers of the ancient craft of Gullah basket weaving that is practiced in the Lowcountry of Charleston by the Gullah-Geechee people. This culture is found all along the coastal and barrier island communities from North Carolina to Florida.
The Gullah-Geechee are the descendants of enslaved West Africans who worked the coastal rice plantations. In Senegal, West Africa, a "coil technique" of basket making strongly resembles that of sweet grass basket weaving so there is assurity that some ancestors were enslaved from Senegal. Because of the Gullah's isolation they were able to hold onto many traditions brought to these new world shores during the Transatlantic slave trade.
The Gullah have a unique language, culture and cuisine - all of which have had an immeasurable effect on the Lowcountry. "Soul food" like fried chicken, BBQ ribs, cabbage and collard, okra soup and corn bread are all examples of Gullah traditions, while Sharon's basket weaving is another.
During slave times, slaves would find materials while farming the rice fields that were similar to those found back home in West Africa. Sweet grass, bulrush, pine needles, palmetto palm were collected for weaving - the same materials that are used today.
Close up on a finished basket | Credit: Matt Taylor-Gross
The first sweetgrass baskets were made to be used in the rice fields and for other practical purposes. They wove large fanner baskets, which were used to winnow rice, a process where rice is tossed in the air to allow wind to separate the chaff from the hull. They also made baskets to store food, tote crops from the field and fan the rice.
It wasn't until after the Civil War and emancipation, that former slaves began taking creative freedoms and expanding their uses. Breadbaskets, hotplates, lidded jars - and JEWELRY - are examples of functional baskets still being made today.
In Charleston currently there are around 250 - 300 weavers that continue the artful heritage of the Gullah-Geechee. It is said that in Charleston or Beaufort, South Carolina one can see people sitting on rural roadsides, in parks or on street corners selling their woven wares...and if two women wearing earrings on a Zoom call can move me to source an entire earring selection for you in the shop, imagine the number of baskets I would scoop up if presented with *that* opportunity.
I look forward to the day that I get to find out.
Addendum: Here is a link to Emma and Sameka's catering company, Carolima's. They specialize in "low country" cuisine and, just as importantly, they ship too!