Sweetgrass basket history in Charleston, SC

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sweetgrass baskets
Sweetgrass baskets at the Sweetgrass Festival in Mt. Pleasant | Photo via @newgirlontheisland

Charleston + Mt. Pleasant are home to a longtime Gullah tradition that has become a staple of the South: sweetgrass baskets. Anyone who visits the Lowcountry can experience the authenticity of this craft, as basket makers use a special coiled weaving technique to create intricate designs with their own set styles — no 2 baskets are the same

The art of weaving sweetgrass baskets SC’s official state handcraft — was first introduced to the Lowcountry in the seventeenth century by enslaved African people. First constructed using bulrush — a tough type of marsh grass — these baskets are now made of a softer sweetgrass that requires minimal care. Recognized as some of the nation’s most treasured cultural traditions, sweetgrass baskets have evolved from agricultural + household items to timeless works of art.

As one of the oldest surviving African art forms in the US, basket making has been passed down from generation to generation. This process requires skill and patience it can often take weeks or months to complete the detailed designs. This one-of-a-kind artwork has become part of a tradition that is a fundamental piece of SC’s history.  

The construction of Highway 17 + the Cooper River Bridge allowed basketmakers to bring their business to roadsides. This increased the popularity of this art form, as they became directly available to tourists, museums, gift shop owners, and collectors. With over 50 sweetgrass vendors in the Charleston City Market, it’s easy to see why this Gullah tradition is so cherished. Basket makers, such as Mt. Pleasant local Mary Jackson, have received national + global recognition for this craft. First selling her baskets in a stall at the City Market in 1980, Mary’s work has been featured in National Geographic and can be found in the White House + Smithsonian American Art Museum. Describing her art as “a gesture of respect to the work of her predecessors,” Jackson’s devotion to basket making has earned her the title of MacArthur Fellow — also known as “the genius grant.”

Today, the Gullah tradition of weaving sweetgrass baskets is a prominent piece of Lowcountry history. This intricate coiled technique is a legacy inherited by generations of Charleston families who aim to keep this tradition alive. Support local sweetgrass basket makers such as Andrea Cayetano-Jefferson, Tonya Aiken, Corey Alston + Beverly Grant at the Charleston City Market, as well as artists found along Mt. Pleasant’s Highway 17, like Mazie Brown + married couple Daryl and Angela.

Check out this recent news of Lowcountry and Rwandan women who weave “sweetgrass baskets of peace,” celebrated on the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.