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.