Sweetgrass Basket Makers

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on October 22, 2000

Preserving the Art and Tradition of South Carolinas Lowcountry

Joyce Coakley is proud to be a sweetgrass basket maker and keeper of an ancient folk-art tradition originating centuries ago.

It shows we are a strong community that believes in its heritage, says Coakley, of Mount Pleasant, a basket weaver since age 6.

On any given day, travelers along Highway 17 North between Mount Pleasant and Highway 41 can see the basket weavers sitting at their hand constructed stalls, chatting happily and weaving their baskets. No one is sure how many basket makers are in the area, but the number is in the thousands.

The techniques have changed little since the forefathers of the basket makers came from West Africa more than 300 years ago, says Michael Allen, a historian and park ranger at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant and an expert on the Gullah culture.

Sweetgrass basket making is unique to the Gullah people of South Carolinas Lowcountry, particularly in the area north of Mount Pleasant. The Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who worked the South Carolina plantations, where they used the baskets to collect and carry vegetables and to store other foods. They developed their own culture, including the Gullah languagebased on English and African sourceswhich survives today.

The baskets are made from natural plant materialssweetgrass, named for its fragrance, as well as marsh bulrush, long-leaf pine needles, and the unopened center leaves of the cabbage palm. Sweetgrass grows near the South Carolina coast and along the boundaries between forest and marsh. Basket makers usually collect the sweetgrass themselves, but community members often help out of respect for this folk-art tradition.

Marquetta Goodwine, who lives on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, collects sweetgrass and helps identify areas where it can be found as she travels the coast and sea islands in her capacity as the first Queen of the Gullah-Geechee people, a ceremonial position in which she promotes their culture. (Geechee is Georgias version of Gullah.)

Its a lot of work, and the people who buy the baskets dont know the risks involved, Goodwine says. Shes had to avoid snakes, rats, and even alligators in her hunt for sweetgrass.

Bulrush adds strength to the baskets, while the palmetto leaf strips are used to stitch them together. Long-leaf pine needles provide decoration.

Folk art, Gullah style, can be hard work. Strong fingers are needed to work the fork or spoon handle used in sewing. Its painful at times because the bulrush will stick in your fingers, and its difficult to remove, says basket maker Jeanette Lee.

The baskets can serve as heirlooms or be used as decorations and in daily life. Take care of a basket and it will last decades, but time can take its toll. Bring it back to Mount Pleasant, and any skilled basket maker can repair it for you, Lee says.

Making a basket can take anywhere from an hour to several days, even months, depending upon the size and intricacy of design. You can look at the stitching and tell who made it, Coakley says of the weaving.

The tradition still flourishes, but development along the booming South Carolina coast makes sweetgrass increasingly tougher to find, and the Gullah community is hoping younger generations will carry on the craft.

Coakley is confident the tradition will survive, however, even as she sees many of the other basket makers following her lead and moving to another level of production, away from the roadside. She now owns a studio where she practices her art.

We will always do them by hand, of course, the basket maker says. Otherwise, it wouldnt be real.