The History of Sweetgrass Baskets
The coiled Sweetgrass basket is a historically significant African art that was brought to America by enslaved Africans from the Windward and Rice Coasts of West Africa in the 17th century. These slaves were particularly sought after in the Atlantic slave trade to the Lowcountry because of their knowledge and experience in the cultivation of rice. The first known baskets in the Lowcountry were fanner baskets, used in winnowing rice. These baskets were originally designed as a tool used in the production and processing of rice. The money crops of the time were rice, cotton, and indigo.
Agricultural baskets were originally made of bulrush, sweetgrass , and split oak. Bulrush and palms, the mainstays of coiled basketry, are ancient plants that are mentioned in the Bible. Sweetgrass basket weaving is viewed as a gift from god. The art has been passed on from generation to generation, is usually learned from childhood, and requires a great deal of patience and creativity.
In the 1890's, sweetgrass baskets began to evolve from agricultural tools to household items. Sweetgrass, a softer, finer material, replaced bulrush as a primary material. Longleaf pine was added to the mix. And palmetto replaced split oak as binders. The baskets today are made from sweet grass, pine needles, bull rush and palms. Our basket materials are collected on Edisto Island, one of five undeveloped beaches on the East coast. Basket makers have pledged to keep the art alive as long as there are raw materials. Development of rural areas is threatening the supply.
There are baskets for every use and occasion. Each piece is unique, and each artist provides her own style. These baskets are very durable and will last longer than your lifetime. They are a proud tradition and a valuable investment. There are sweet grass baskets found in many museums across the Lowcounty. Lillie Howard has been weaving sweetgrass baskets for 44 years. She is accompanied in this endeavor by her sisters and her daughter, Annette, who lives in Hollywood, SC. They have a sweetgrass basket stand on Highway 174 going into Edisto.
Caring for your Sweetgrass Basket
Because the grasses used in making these baskets are from the swamps and marshes of the Lowcountry, water will not hurt them. With a soft brush or cloth, they can be carefully washed in soapy water and rinsed thoroughly in cold water. They should then be air dried. This is the only care they require.