Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sweetgrass Baskets: A Gullah Tradition

Last weekend my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary (yes, I am that old) by travelling to Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time in our lives. Charleston impressed me with its incredible food and pervasive focus on sustainable, local seafood and produce in its restaurants (the ones we ate at, anyway). I consider myself an informed eater and “home chef” so this was very important to me and I thought I would make it the subject of my blog entry this week. However, a much more interesting topic presented itself as I was perusing the Charleston City Market. City Market is pretty much a flea market where you can find cheap imported trinkets right next to incredible handmade works of art. And that was most obvious in the case of the sweetgrass baskets.

Sweetgrass baskets, originally woven by slaves for use in rice production, show the legacy of African influence on Southern culture. The local Gullah people hand down the art of sweetgrass weaving from generation to generation and use local materials gathered from undeveloped beaches near Charleston to create these beautiful works of art. They weave the spiral baskets in elaborate and unique patterns and the finished products are useful, beautiful, and last lifetimes. I had heard about these baskets before and was hoping to bring one home as a souvenir from our trip—an anniversary present.

Walking through the market, I was examining some baskets and was put off by the loose weave and plastic bindings. But the price was great—only $50 for a large basket. Incredible! Too good to be true? Yup. On closer inspection of the basket selection, I found one with a sticker on it: “Made in Bangladesh.” My suspicions confirmed, I walked on.

At the other end of the market, a woman sat weaving a basket behind a table full of pieces of art. Neat, tight spirals in various configurations and sizes were all around her. And she had made them herself. A basket comparable to the $50 one I had seen before was $250. A reasonable price for something that took this woman weeks to create, but not within my budget. After complimenting her handiwork and giving several pieces longing looks, I had to walk away empty-handed. But it struck me that many people would purchase the cheaper product because they could afford it and ignore or overlook the difference in quality.

So how do knock-off sweetgrass baskets infringe on human rights? Firstly, the Gullah people have created and developed this tradition over hundreds of years. The craft is an heirloom itself and different materials or methods of production are contrary to the art form. Replicating the craft in a subpar way strips traditional “sewers” of their heritage and can corrupt outside opinions of the baskets. This craft is part of the Gullah heritage and manufacturing imitations strips the people of their identity in a way. Secondly, conditions in Bangladesh, China, etc. where sweetgrass copies are being made show that inexpensive versions cost less because their creators are paid less and lower quality materials are being used to produce them. Some would see the successes of companies selling these copies show that the economic incentive is there to produce a lower quality, lower cost alternative to the real thing. Others (the sewers) see it as their local traditions being thwarted by international business practices.

This topic has made me think of how many of the things we use every day that are now manufactured in large factories staffed by underpaid workers, but used to be created by hand by someone in the local community or a member of one’s family. As local artisanship becomes obsolete, we lose part of the culture that cannot be regained. The craftspeople themselves will lose their livelihood, and perhaps their identity, as economic forces drive down prices due to outside competition. Gullah “sewers” can only weave their baskets as fast as they can and patience and love do not accomplish this task very quickly—but patience and love do contribute to the beauty of these functional works of art.


  1. This is very interesting! It is sad that in a capitalist society like ours, most consumers will not give a flip about how an item was done and the kind of labor employed. All they see is the price tag. I am glad, however, that there are some people who are doing research before purchasing the product.

  2. This is something that we face all the time in the art world! I'm with you, Mandy, in that I greatly admire the sweetgrass baskets and the generations of skill and artistry that are put in to them (in fact, I appreciate them more for that reason than for aesthetics). Unfortunately, the real things are out of my price range, and I wouldn't insult the artists by settling for a knock-off. We encounter people all the time who appreciate the beauty of different works of art, but aren't willing to pay the price for the artist's time, labor, and skill that go into its production. (Granted, I do think some artists out their have a rather high opinion of their own works!) Yet this is how they make their living. Instead of supporting them, however, people fill their homes with "decor" mass-produced in China or India. It's not that that is inherently bad, but I hate seeing cheap art prints dressed up in fancy frames and sold for a few hundred bucks, while works that can really mean something (to both artist and buyer) are unacknowledged.