Making Sweetgrass Baskets



Miss Margaret’s sweetgrass baskets

Last month I gave myself a birthday gift–sweetgrass basketmaking lessons. To me, this is the best kind of research there is. Hands-on!

I am very interested in the rice culture of colonial South Carolina. I hope for it to play an important role in one of my books. While my husband attended a professional conference in the Georgetown, South Carolina area, I toured an old rice plantation, Hopsewee.

I will write more on the plantation itself soon. While I was on the website investigating what they had to offer, however, I noted they offered the basketmaking class. I promptly emailed them and signed up.

Miss Margaret

On a very soggy May 9th, after touring the plantation, I met Miss Margaret outside their tea room where she had surrounded herself with her works of art. This craft was brought to the Charleston area about 300 years ago by West African slaves, and the methods and designs have changed very little since then. Miss Margaret informed me that some within her community were unhappy about these lessons to outsiders, but my participation was purely for fun and curiosity.

I was the only student so I got the best possible attention. The baskets are made from a local reed called sweetgrass which has the most wonderful natural scent. Apparently it is quite hard to come by these days, as I was informed by my tutor. “I don’t know who would sell it to you,” she said.

Again, not to worry. If I get very ambitious, pine straw is also used and we have a glut of that in my town. The bands that weave the grasses together are made from strips of palmetto fronds, which are specially treated to keep them flexible. That secret is also safe; I don’t know how to do it.

Miss Margaret started a basket for me before I arrived. “I don’t teach people how to start ’em,” she told me. I really don’t know what the community is worried about. She obviously left out plenty of crucial information.

The tool I used

I watched closely as Miss Margaret worked. We used a simple tool made from the handle of a spoon which had been rounded and smoothed by one of her family members. With this, I eventually learned to work the grass and bind the rows together.

Miss Margaret is seventy-five years old and has worked this art all her life. Although I am basically a shy introvert, I felt immediately comfortable with her and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Her personality was delightful.

I’m not sure how she felt about me as a student, however. When learning, I like to repeat the instructions given in my own words to be sure I understand. On a couple of occasions, while I did that, she leaned forward and said, “LISTEN to me!” and repeated her instructions more slowly. Hmm.

Finally, she said, “You’re a school teacher, right?”

“Right.”

“You ask an awful lot of questions,” she said flatly. I don’t think it was a compliment.

Well, within two hours I made myself a little basket to collect–whatever. I had a fun time learning something most people don’t know and met a perfectly charming person while doing so. On top of that, I have a very cool conversation piece in my den.

Happy birthday to me!

My masterpiece!

2 thoughts on “Making Sweetgrass Baskets

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