Growing up in beautiful Charleston, SC, you become aware of it’s tainted past rather early on. As you may know, Charleston, SC was one of the main hubs in the Atlantic Slave Trade. In particular, enslaved West Africans were traded from an area known as the Rice Coast. These Africans were sought out because of their knowledge of rice cultivation, which was a main cash crop of the Charleston plantations. Other than the knowledge of rice cultivation many of the enslaved Africans brought over other traditions, and skills.
If you have ever walked through The Charleston City Market, or as we call it, the Market, or if you’ve driven along highway 17 North in Mount Pleasant you may have noticed beautifully crafted coiled baskets, known as Sweetgrass baskets. Though basketmaking isn’t unique to the Gullah/Geechee people, the coiled style, in which Sweetgrass baskets are made, is unique.
The Fanner baskets, also called winnowing baskets, were the first known basket in the lowcountry. They first appeared in the 17th century . Fanner baskets were used for winnowing rice. Winnowing is the process of using the wind to separate chaff from the rice grain. Large baskets, commonly made by men, were used to collect, and store vegetables, fruit, cotton and other items for the plantation. These baskets were made of a marsh grass called bulrush. West African’s were used to using bulrush and palm because both are found in Africa. Other types of baskets were used to store fruit, grains, vegetables, and even seafood. Baskets, made for use around the house by women, to store food, clothing, and sewing/knitting supplies were made using sweetgrass-a softer marsh grass. Another reason sweetgrass was used, was because of the sweet fragrance, which smells similar to fresh hay.
Today’s baskets are mostly made from sweetgrass, bulrush, palms, and pine needles. Sweetgrass baskets come in many sizes, and many intricate designs. Today people are making everything from household items, such as drink coasters, to hats, even earrings using the Sweetgrass technique. The proud tradition of making Sweetgrass baskets is alive today, because the art has been passed down from generation to generation. However, getting sweetgrass is becoming a problem for many basket makers, because of the development of marshland.
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