Africa / Art / History / South Carolina

Sweet Sweetgrass. Pure Genius!

Sweetgrass baskets

“Any darn fool can make something complex;
it takes a genius to make something simple.”
―Pete Seger.

In the Southern USA we love our Sweetgrass Baskets, an ancient African art that’s been handed down from generation to generation. This elegant and ingenious basketmaking craft is alive and well here in the South, thanks to talented artisans in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Sweetgrass baskets were first made by West African slaves in the lowcountry in the 17th century for the plantation owners, and used in both mansions and fields. Baskets were made of sweetgrass, pine straw, and bull rush, all natural materials indigenous to the lowcountry.

What makes a sweetgrass basket distinctive? The basketmakers use the West African technique of coiling. They bundle dried sweetgrass, pine needles and bullrush, then coil the materials in circles to build the basket.

Sweetgrass Basket by Muffet

Sweetgrass Basket by Muffet

“Sweetgrass baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, and learning to coil baskets so tightly they could hold water was an important rite of passage in West African tribes like the Mende and the Temne.” –SCIWAY.net

So you may be wondering, What in the world is sweetgrass?

Muhley grass

It’s also known as Muhley Grass (Muhlenbergia filipes) which grows in the moist, sandy soils near oceans and marshes. Most of the year it’s nondescript, but when autumn arrives it puts on a glorious show with vibrant pinkish-purplish plumes. Then for winter it fades to frosty white. It’s harvested in the spring and summer by “pullers” who slip it from its roots and place it in the sun to dry.

Photo by Jan Kronsell

Photo by Jan Kronsell

To me, Sweetgrass Baskets are the definition of simple elegance … and you know how much I love that! But don’t be fooled. Each basket requires meticulous craftsmanship and long hours of creation. Even for the most experienced artist, a simple design can take as long as 12 hours of toil to yield pure genius!

Peace and Love,
Terri

Basket

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