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How sweet it is: Baskets weave together utility, history and art

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The sweetgrass basket made its transition from work tool to art form decades ago.

Flat fanner baskets, originally designed for winnowing rice or husking peas, are usually purchased as wall decorations these days. The same can be said of baskets for every purpose. A beautiful wheat basket on loan to Brookgreen Gardens as part of an exhibit from the Avery Research Center in Charleston is valued at $6,000. Like a valuable jewel, it is encased in glass for the exhibit, titled “The Sweetgrass: A Legacy of Family and Community.”

It’s been an eventful month for Gullah culture and the sweetgrass basket.

Ron Daise, vice president for creative education at Brookgreen Gardens, said sweetgrass baskets were among cultural artifacts displayed on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission’s float in the Presidential Inaugural Parade. “Historically, sweetgrass basket makers promoted our culture before it was acknowledged or accepted,” Daise said.

The Brookgreen basket exhibit is open daily from noon to 4:30 p.m. through March 1 and will be viewed by participants in Brookgreen’s 11th annual Gullah Gullah Days event for third-graders of Georgetown and Horry county schools that begins Monday.

Their survival is one of the remarkable aspects of sweetgrass baskets. Descendants of the slaves who brought the craft from Africa 300 years ago still make them the same tedious way. The art form has passed from generation to generation and is concentrated north of Mount Pleasant in the communities of Hamlin, Six Mile, Seven Mile and Phillips.

Vera Manigault of the Hamlin community learned to sew — not weave — sweetgrass baskets from her mother, Ethel. They sell baskets at a stand in front of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, and Manigault has become somewhat of a spokesman for the craft, having appeared on CNN and been interviewed by Southern Living and a host of other publications. She was visiting the Gullah O’oman Shop in the Pawleys Island area last week and started a new basket by twisting some longleaf pine straw into a tight circle before she poked a hole with a sharp tool and added dried sweetgrass and began to wrap.

The real sweetgrass basket is a misnomer, Manigault says. She uses sweetgrass, bulrush, palm fronds and longleaf pine needles to vary the color and texture. That’s one way to tell that a sweetgrass basket is made by a Gullah craftsman, she says. Most will have at least two colors, while factory-made baskets are usually just one.

Imported baskets are the latest threat to the survival of the craft. Raw materials, while not scarce, are getting hard to find, Manigault says, because they grow in areas that have been fenced off as private communities. She can pick longleaf pine needles from the side of the road in the Francis Marion National Forest only as long as she remains within the state right-of-way. Permits to gather the pine needles are no longer issued because some people were raking them up for landscaping.

“I learned how to gather materials,” Manigault says. “Our lives were in danger from snakes, bees, ticks, red bugs, alligators, wild hogs — all in the woods. The materials grow in the coastal waterway. It’s not hard to find. It’s getting there. There are not a lot of people educated. When we pull the sweetgrass, we don’t kill it.”

Small bundles of sweetgrass, bulrush and pine needles are put up in the summer and allowed to dry. Manigault says basket makers used to put the bundles on their tin roofs to dry faster. She learned the craft at age 4 using a flattened carpenter’s nail as a tool. Slaves used the end of a sharp bone to make baskets because nails were not available, and Manigault’s grandmother insisted that she call her tool a “nail bone.”

“I asked her why they call it a nail bone, and she said, ‘My ancestors called it a nail bone. You do the same.’” She laughs at the memory.

Manigault doesn’t count stitches or rows, working instead by feel.

Though she is right-handed, she hides a left-handed stitch in each of her baskets as a signature. And she has developed natural dyes to add red, teal, blue, green, purple and yellow.

“A basket can take a week or more, depending on what kind of mood you are in,” she says. “I put myself into each basket.”

Manigault will teach a sweetgrass basket class at The Ultimate Gullah in Conway Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Students will complete a sweetgrass basket. Fee is $60. Register online by Feb. 16.

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