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Annie Scott weaves a sweetgrass basket Saturday afternoon at the Gullah Flea Market on Hilton Head Island. The tradition was brought to America by slaves from West Africa. Some baskets sell for $400 or more.

Weavers continue decorative tradition

By CAROL WEIR
Packet staff writer

Annie Scott coils and stitches sweetgrass into baskets prized by collectors at Hilton Head Island's Gullah Flea Market.

Scott, a native of Mount Pleasant, carries on a tradition brought from West Africa by slaves. Coiled sea grass basketry has survived in America for 300 years, and sweetgrass baskets now are recognized as an art form.

Scott has been making baskets since she was 8 years old. She and her three sisters were taught to weave by their mother and grandmother.

The African-American art of basket making dates from the 1700s, when baskets first were used in rice cultivation, writes Dale Rosengarten in her book "Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry."

Fanner baskets were wide winnowing trays used to throw threshed and pounded rice into the air, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff.

Early baskets were made of bulrush, an abundant marsh grass, but sweetgrass became the weavers' preferred material around the turn of the century.

In the early 1900s, a group of black families from Mount Pleasant began mass producing and selling "show baskets" made of sweetgrass. The community remains the center of modern-day basket making.

Originally, basket makers were men. Now most weavers are women.

Sweetgrass baskets are used as decorations and in daily life. Scott said she has a clothes basket, magazine rack, fruit basket, mending basket and yarn basket. She said a well-made basket can last 40 years.

Because of development, sweetgrass is difficult to find in the Lowcountry. Most weavers now get their materials from Georgia and Florida.

Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes) is a long-stemmed plant that grows behind the dune line near the ocean and along the boundaries between marsh and forest.

It's harvested in the spring and summer by "pullers," who slip it out of its roots like knives from sheaths.

Partly because of the shortage of sweetgrass, bulrush is being incorporated again to add strength and color to larger baskets. It is tougher on the hands than sweetgrass and more difficult to bind.

Weavers put fresh grasses out in the sun to dry for several days to several weeks, depending on the season.

Longleaf pine needles are used to decorate baskets, and strips of palmetto leaves are used to stitch the coils together.

Sweetgrass baskets fetch a high price from art collectors.

A medium-sized basket, which takes 12 hours or more to make, can cost $400 or more.

"Baskets were looked upon by my family as a way to gain extra money to save for children's education," said Veronica Gerald, director of history and culture at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

Gerald said Lowcountry basket sewing techniques have changed little since they came from West Africa. She estimated about 10,000 sewers from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., make coil baskets.

Ruth Singleton Middleton, a weaver from Charleston, does demonstrations at the Heyward Historic Center in Bluffton. She said modern basket makers are making new forms, including jewelry, belt buckles and barrettes.

Middleton is making a punch bowl set.

She said young people aren't interested in basket making because it's too time-consuming and doesn't pay enough.

"I think it's dying out in terms of the young folks," she said. "We have very few interested in doing it."

Annie Scott taught her three children to recognize sweetgrass, long-needle pine, bulrush and palmetto. Her teen-age sons and daughter know how to weave but don't do it much.

"They'll come back to it," Scott predicted. "I wasn't into it either. I didn't weave for about 10 years, until I got old enough to appreciate the art."

Staff writer Carol Weir can be reached at 706-8140 or cweir@islandpacket.com.

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