Art + Music
Lowcountry Pastimes: Sweetgrass Baskets
Tracing the perimeter of marshes and inlets throughout the Lowcountry, sweetgrass is a long-bladed grass that grows exclusively on the southeastern coast of the U.S. Named for the fresh fragrance of its leaves, the grass prefers moist, sandy soils near oceans and marshes, making the Lowcountry’s terrain an earthy haven for the plant species.
Kiawah River’s 20 miles of shoreline and 2,000 acres of picturesque land are accented by savannahs of sweetgrass where the soft, pliable grass thrives in the community’s undeveloped waterfront, offering residents a scenic view of the Lowcountry’s natural splendors.
In the past, the native flora was used in a variety of ways, including in Native American ceremonies and, most notably, as the primary material used to construct sweetgrass baskets. Originally crafted by West African slaves brought to South Carolina in the 1600s, sweetgrass baskets were first made of bulrush, a tough marsh grass well-suited for heavy use. Today, the baskets are considered works of art and are often displayed in homes throughout the South.
In the 1900s, Gullah Geechee people, descendants of the West African slaves, substituted sweetgrass for bulrush because of its greater flexibility, subtle colors and hay-like smell which made the plant a far superior medium for the baskets.
Rather than use typical weaving techniques like plaiting or twisting to make the baskets, Gullah artisans coil the dried blades of sweetgrass in circles and bind the bundles with thin strands of palmetto fronds. Bulrush and pine needles are often added for decoration and strength as well. For crafting tools, the makers typically use a sharpened metal spoon, known as a “sewing bone” or small, whittled picks called “nailbones.”
Traditional basket makers can be found all across the Lowcountry. In Charleston, sweetgrass artisans set up shop at the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets and in the city market between Meeting and East Bay streets, creating and selling their crafts along the walkways. At the Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island, a sweetgrass basket weaver greets visitors from a screened-in porch behind the gift shop, offering a wide selection of handmade sweetgrass baskets and souvenirs.
Having been passed down through the generations of Gullah Geechee families, sweetgrass basketry is one of the oldest and most beautiful handicrafts of African origin, and the art has been a long-celebrated tradition in the Palmetto State.