Step in to the old Charleston city market, and the first thing that is bound to capture your attention is a whiff of sweet hay fragrance coming from inside. This natural aroma is from the famous Sweetgrass Baskets of all shapes, dimensions and designs. Just cannot resist!
What started as a old home-style storage baskets was used for agriculture and then evolved as storage baskets for sewing and clothing. Today, there are designs specifically made for other uses including home decor too. My tryst with this wonderful art of weaving Sweetgrass baskets started after a visit to this wonderful old city market at Charleston. I asked a couple of people about the specialty of South Carolina and prompt came the response, the sweetgrass baskets – they even directed me to go to the city market at Charleston and Mount Pleasant to sample the weaving process and talk to the weavers.
I strolled around to see some of the weavers stationed at the corner of each shed in the city market. They were busily weaving their wares, humming a song, at the same time chatting to the consumers. I learnt from a lady weaver on how laborious the process of weaving was and about a tradition that speaks of a legacy. She said:
“I started learning to weave when I was 10 years old, and our family has been involved in this for a long time. My sister weaved this basket (pointing to a fruit basket), my aunt did this (pointing to a jewelry holder basket), my niece did this (pointing to a flower basket), and we all love doing this work – you will see the difference in the baskets by the smell of fresh sweet hay. These were our tools for household use for ages, until the modern generation expanded its use for art and decor”.
I asked her about the process of weaving a basket and she said these are all made from wild grasses. The first step is to go and gather the wild grasses from plantations, the sandy and coastal areas of South Carolina. Several different varieties of grasses are found like bulrush (which is the oldest one used for rice storage), natural palmetto, long pine needles and then Sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is more easier to use because it is much more soft and silky and gives a fine texture to the products. Once we gather them, we sort it and lay it out to dry in the sun for three to five days till the color turns in to a natural tone of biege/moss green. You will find some of the them are olive green or a lighter shade of green, these are fresh ones which come to a natural biege dried color as time goes. Because these come from marshlands, they are more precious as they age and can even last a lifetime if handled well.
Each basket starts with a knot and then are hand-weaved by coiling. I wondered at this, as normally basket weavers use the technique of plaiting or twisting techniques to weave baskets. She talked about how thin strands of Palmetto leaf holds the basket in place and how other types of grasses like pine needles, bulrush and pieces of cloth are added on for decoration and strength.
“It often takes us hours and hours to make one basket as they are completely hand coiled. Even a small incorrect coiling means returning back to the place and reweaving it”.
I saw the different varieties that each artist had in their collection and was awed by it. An art which looks simple to the eye was an experience in itself as I heard the story of weaving. If you are in the area of Charleston, or Mount Pleasant, do not miss to visit the Sweetgrass weavers sitting in the corners of the road, or at the city market humming a tune and weaving happily. It is euphoric! Enjoy the pictures below.