TraditionsProjectLearn more about the Artists.

Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry

During the past century, as the economic suitability of some traditional crafts have declined, cultural tenacity has encouraged others to survive. A leading example is the production of sea grass, or sweetgrass, baskets along the coast of South Carolina. With roots in West Africa, this African American tradition followed the contours of rice culture, which spread along tidal rivers as far as North Carolina and northern Florida. Today, sweetgrass basketry is concentrated in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina and in isolated pockets around Charleston County.

Over the years, the basketmakers have incorporated new designs and new materials, yet the process remains largely unchanged. Until the 20th century, demands on the craft were determined mainly by agricultural needs and household use. In the last hundred years, the shift from utilitarian object to art object has changed the market dramatically. Charleston merchants began purchasing baskets to sell to tourists locally as well as commercial outlets in other parts of the country.

Basketmakers soon began skipping the "middleman" and basket stands soon appeared along Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, allowing the basketmakers to reach prospective buyers directly.

Made of four natural materials - sweetgrass, bulrush, pine needles, and palmetto - the coiled basket tradition is over three hundred years old and remains a vibrant means of artistic expression.

Video   (View Transcript)   Pop-up window. Get free QuickTime download.

bullet icon "Gullah Baskets" (03:31)

Excerpt from the 1971 SCETV production "Gullah Baskets." This short documentary was narrated by James Clyburn and discusses the properties of sweetgrass, gathering techniques, and environmental threats.

bullet icon Edna Rouse in "Gullah Baskets" (02:41)

Edna Rouse tells how people learn to make sweetgrass baskets.

bullet icon More from "Gullah Baskets" (03:07)

Another excerpt from "Gullah Baskets." Milby Burton, director of the Charleston Museum in 1971, discusses the connections between Africa and South Carolina basket weavers.

bullet icon "Charleston Basketweavers" (03:01)

Excerpt from 1986 USC News production. Dale Rosengarten discusses sweetgrass basketry as a part of the Charleston tourist trade, as well as a one of the most highly recognized African-American art forms. Marie Manigault, Henrietta Snype and Mary Vanderhorst discuss passing on their craft.

bullet icon Mazie Brown (02:59)

Mazie Brown describes a typical day at her basket stand along Highway 17. Brown talks of her history as a basketmaker and of her mother who also had a stand. From the "Row Upon Row" documentary produced by McKissick Museum.

bullet icon Future of basketmaking (02:25)

Mazie Brown speaks of the decline of the sweetgrass basket making tradition due to scarcity of materials and a perceived lack of interest by younger generations.