Monday, November 11, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Sweet Grass

QUESTION: My grandmother just gave me a flat basket that smells as sweet as new-mown hay. She said it belonged to her mother but isn’t sure where she got it or when. Can you tell me something about it?

ANSWER: As the fragrance implies, what you have is what’s known as a sweet-grass basket.

The story of South Carolina's Low Country sweet-grass baskets begins centuries ago on the rice farms of  West Africa. During the 15th and 16th centuries, black men brought over to America as slaves made strong, sturdy baskets out of bulrush, a coarse marsh grass that grew along the tidal rivers of what’s today South Carolina. The baskets winnowed rice, stored grain, and held vegetables collected from the garden.

Eventually buckets and crates replaced the baskets, but families still used them to store bread, fruit, clothing, and other household staples.

After the Civil War, former slaves continued to make baskets on their own family farms, but now the women made them while the men gathered and harvested the sweet grass and taught their sons to do the same. The women chose sweet grass as their medium because it is softer and more pliable than bulrush and retains the scent of fresh-mown hay for years.

Although coiled sweet-grass basketmaking has died out in many South Carolina communities, the 300-year-old tradition continues to flourish in the coastal town of Mount Pleasant, north of Charleston. Today, it’s the only place where this type of basketmaking is done. For years, individual artists have made them at home using age-old techniques passed down from generation to generation. Ancestors of many of today's basketmakers got a boost back in 1916 when a local Charleston bookseller began buying Mt. Pleasant baskets in quantity. He sold them first in his store and later by mail for more than 30 years.

In the 1930's, basketmakers saw a new surge of interest from gift shop owners, museums, and handicraft collectors. The paving of Highway 17 North and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the route through Mt. Pleasant a major north-south artery. Basketmakers then started marketing their wares from roadside basket stands in their front yards, which were directly accessible to tourists.

Some basketmakers would also make the trip to Charleston to sell their homegrown farm produce and their baskets at the open market there. Old photographs capture these merchants with baskets on their heads, bearing their wares.

Though traditional basket shapes are still popular, many creative shapes have been added over the years. There are bread trays, sifting baskets, magazine baskets, place mats, clothes hampers, and baskets to hold firewood, hats, and cakes.

The time, care, and skill that goes into each basket can never be recouped by the price. Basketmakers spend long hours making these baskets. Even for the most experienced basketmaker, a simple design can take as long as 12 hours.

The grasses must be gathered, hauled, cleaned, dried, and stored. The artist starts each basket from the bottom up, beginning with a knot of sage-green sweet grass. The grasses are coiled round and round and are sometimes mixed with rush. Coils are then bound with white strips of palmetto, using a tool called a "bone." The bone is generally fashioned from an old teaspoon handle that's been hammered and filed, but some craftspeople use half a scissors or a pocketknife as their tool. Whatever the choice, each basketmaker usually has a favorite bone and works with it exclusively. The bone works like a shuttle between the rows of coiled grass to make space for the binding strips of palmetto.

Once the basketmaker forms the bottom, she builds up the sides, and may add a handle or cover. Some makers decorate their baskets with pine needles.

Today, South Carolina Low Country baskets have become part of the collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as many individuals. While older ones can sell for three figures, newer ones from the latter 20th century can be had for $10-25.

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