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Sweet Grass Baskets - From Africa to America
When many people think about baskets and basket weaving, the first people that come to mind are Native Americans or Africans. There is, however, a whole group of talented basket weavers that have also carried the tradition of this art form through the generations that are located in the Carolinas. These are the sweet grass basket weavers.
The weaving traditions of these people began on the African west coastal areas in places such as Senegal and Mozambique. Rice was the staple agricultural products and the natives weaved baskets from sea grass that were specially constructed to hold and carry the small grains of rice. Other baskets were also created to sift the rice as well as store it.
With the advent of the slave trade, many of these natives were forcibly transplanted to the southern United States, bringing their knowledge and traditions with them. In the colonial Carolinas, the planters were just beginning to grow rice, and many did not know how to cultivate or harvest it. Thanks to these slaves that were brought from rice-growing communities, the Carolina’s rice production flourished. As these slaves were sent into the fields, they began to weave baskets much like the ones that they had used at home to harvest, sift, and store this cash crop.
Since their native materials were no longer available, these weavers discovered that the sweet grass that grew wild in the area was a satisfactory substitute. This grass is found in along the coastline and in marshes and the slaves could easily find large patches of it within walking distance of their homes.
As in the case of other basket-weaving cultures, the techniques and the knowledge of materials that were needed to make these durable baskets were handed down from generation to generation. Today, the descendants of these African slaves has turned this art form into a lucrative business, making baskets in much the same way as their ancestors did and selling their crafts to tourists and collectors.
The technique of making these baskets is amazing to observe. Unlike other forms of basket weaving, the sweet grass baskets are a coiled design, which involves sewing and stitching as well as traditional weaving. The sweet grass is knotted into coils and strips of palm leaves are used to sew and stitch the coils together. Sweet grass must be continually added during this stitching process to ensure uniformity in the finished product. Other materials such as needle grass may be added to strengthen the basket and pine needles can be utilized to add a touch of color (as sweet grass is plain yellow).
Like many other modern basket weavers, the sweet grass weavers of the Carolinas are facing the same difficulties in finding their working materials in an environment that has drastically changed over the years. Due to the development of the coastal areas for upper-class housing and the booming tourist trade along the beaches, the sweet grass is becoming almost impossible to find. Many of these weavers have to travel into Georgia and Florida to find the materials that they need.
Unlike many of the other weavers, the Carolina weavers have the support of their local governments who are attempting to preserve areas of sweet grass for their use as well as attempting to open up new areas that are currently off-limits. The people of the Carolinas understand the value of these weavers and the importance of them being able to cling to their ancient traditions. It is a belief that many other communities could learn a lesson from.
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