- Arts and Design
Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets and Jewelry: Valuable Works of Art
Sweetgrass Items Display & for Sale in Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Welcome Center
Sweetgrass Weaving Originated in Africa & Continues in South Carolina Lowcountry
Gullah sweetgrass baskets are coil straw baskets made by the descendants of slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Sweetgrass basket weaving originated in Sierra Leone, West Africa and the process of making them requires patience and creativity as there are no set patterns.
In the Lowcountry descendants of enslaved African people have learned the techniques of weaving sweetgrass baskets from their grandmothers and great grandmothers and now carry on this beautiful Gullah craft and sell their wares to the public in places like Hilton Head Island, Savannah and Charleston, SC.
Though basic skills are handed down through the generations, each artist eventually develops his or her own style of basket making and each piece becomes a unique work of art that can command a high price. For example, a tiny, 3 inch basket can cost $35 and larger ones cost several hundred to a thousand dollars apiece. Gullah baskets come in many shapes, sizes and designs which are limited only by the imagination of those who have learned the art of weaving intricate patterns out of natural materials that grow in swamps and marsh lands.
Gullah Folk Song: "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" Typical Song Sung by Gullah Slaves as They Wove
Master Weaver Michael Smalls Making a Sweetgrass Basket
Sweetgrass Baskets by Michael Smalls and Daurus Niles
Michael Smalls and Daurus Niles are master weavers who currently sell and make their baskets in the Jarvis Room at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Welcome Center on the north end of Hilton Head Island. I met Michael there in January 2012 and had the privilege of watching him weave a new basket and speak about his craft.
Michael says that in addition to being functional and beautiful, the baskets can be a valuable investment that rise in value over time because the raw materials they're made from - sweetgrass, long leaf pine needles and bulrush are becoming more rare as modern day developments impinge on marsh lands. Also, there are now fewer Gullah descendants who know this craft and earn their living through sweetgrass basket weaving.
According to Michael, the baskets are easy to clean and maintain and the only care they require is to occasionally wash them with soapy water and a soft brush and cloth. They should be thoroughly rinsed and allowed to air dry.
In addition to displaying their wares at the welcome center, Michael and Daurus sometimes teach classes and attend local events where they display their wares and talk with the public about the craft.
Each basket takes Michael or Daurus days or weeks to make, depending on its size and shape. Both have been weaving baskets on and off for 41 years and currently make approximately 100 baskets a year.
Michael Smalls was featured on the cover of the January-February 2012 Island Events visitor's guide and he will be participating in the 16th Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration which is a month-long series of art exhibits, lectures, films, food and craft festivals honoring and preserving the traditions of Hilton Head's native Gullah population. The festival takes place each February.
Michael Smalls once had an angel-shaped vase exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. Daurus Niles had a serving tray displayed in the same exhibit.
Video About the Art of Sweetgrass Basket Weaving
Gullah Dancers Using Sweetgrass Baskets as Props
Sweetgrass Baskets on Display at Gullah Festival
Sweetgrass Jewelry: Wearable Art
Sweetgrass weavers also create beautiful jewelry including necklaces, earrings and bracelets and they also create flowers. The following items were on display and for sale at the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center.
Sweetgrass Jewelry: Wearable Art
Now that you've learned something about the craft of sweetgrass basket weaving and jewelry, test your knowledge by taking the following short quiz.