When I was fifteen I got my first glimpse of Mount Pleasant’s sweetgrass basket weavers. My Uncle Joe and Aunt Vivian lived in Summerville, South Carolina, where I spent two weeks each summer. We went into Charleston almost daily. Not long after shooting across the Cooper River Bridge we arrived in a countryside peopled by weavers and their roadside stands.
I saw weavers sitting in pairs and sometimes threes along Highway 17.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Making baskets,” said Aunt Vivian. “Sweetgrass baskets.”
Now sweetgrass to me was a grass Mom introduced me to. Pull a handful up close to your face and you’d smell the sweetest incense, but it never would do for baskets. Much too soft and fragile, thin too. The ladies sitting along the highway I would learn years later were weaving a tougher kind of sweetgrass, and in time their dignified weavings would give a seven-mile stretch of highway a name — Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway.
Things were simpler then. To see the black women along the highway was to see art. Wearing large hats to ward off the sun the ladies sat a far distance from the road patiently weaving, waiting for the buyers sure to come. The women looked like the black women in Jonathan Green’s art, white dresses, white hats with wide brims, and stately demeanors. Highway 17 was a two-lane highway back then with generous grassy shoulders. All manner of development had yet to arrive.
Today the daughters and granddaughters of those women carry on the tradition, though Highway 17 today is a six-lane highway with narrow shoulders and heavy traffic. Restaurants like the Mellow Mushroom and bricked malls sprawl along Highway 17. What was once a quaint corridor looks like your typical drive into urban sprawl. Talking to a weaver is impossible. The din of traffic, guttural mufflers, blaring horns, and the scream of big tires drown out your words. Sirens bring an ominous sound to the mix. Cement mixers, eighteen-wheelers, buses, and cars fly by mere feet from the women. Stand in front of some stands and take two steps back and a truck will rip off your backside. Catastrophe is one blown tire, one careless text away. It’s like sitting just off the line of fire in a shooting gallery. Medals should honor the courage these women display.
The weavers who sit in the bricked in confines of the old slave market, sanitized and reborn as City Market, face no such hazards in this partially air-conditioned place devoid of its original character thanks to boutiques and ATMs. The weavers risking their lives along Highway 17 earn my admiration.
Charleston’s sweetgrass basket weavers are legendary. They are as much a part of the Lowcountry as she crab soup, Spanish moss, sea oats, and a crashing surf line. Their baskets please the eye with their symmetrical lines and khaki and tan patterns. A princely sum will buy you a basket but if you think spending $1,195 for a hand-woven basket is too much, hold on for a bit. There’s much to know about that basket and all that goes into it. For starters a rich history attends sweetgrass baskets.
The weaving of sweetgrass baskets is an American art with African origins. When African slaves came to South Carolina from Sierra Leone they brought their basket-making skills with them. They made baskets from bulrush, white oak, and saw palmetto. Rice plantations found many uses for their baskets.
Sweetgrass grew in popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, when women in Mount Pleasant began making “show baskets” for tourists along Route 17. That tradition owes its existence to one lady. It all began with the 1929 opening of the Grace Bridge that connected Charleston to Mount Pleasant. An idea struck Lottie “Winnee” Moultrie Swinton. She decided to sit in a chair with her baskets along Highway 17. People saw her beautiful work, pulled onto the shoulder of the road, and a tradition was born. Today, with that stretch of highway officially designated to honor them, ladies sit and weave patiently, up and down both sides of the road, waiting to sell their wares. The highway needs them. There’s nothing quaint about Highway 17 anymore.
Any charm the highway has comes from the weavers, but there wouldn’t be much time for weaving if weavers gathered their own grass. Men gather it and sell it to the weavers. Pullers slip the grass from its roots and dry the fresh grass in the sun. Once it’s cut into sheaves it’s ready for weavers to work it into coils. Lots of labor here. Enough to go around so much that I have a job for you. Your task is to harvest the elusive sweetgrass weavers need. You know that most folks fail to notice this ordinary looking plant much of the year, but come autumn its vibrant pinkish-purple plumes are unmistakable. Fall’s here and off you go to the old haunts where you’ve always found grass. You know where the grass grows but more and more of it is out of reach behind gated communities. Go anyhow and you risk being accused of trespassing.
Your trips afield take you farther and farther away. For days you have no luck. At long last you find a secluded stretch of beach that somehow has eluded development. It’s late afternoon. Sunlight streams in low and your elongated shadow stretches toward the surf line. Looking back to the west the sun backlights clumps of a long-stemmed rosy-pink plant. Billowy and luminous, it blazes up like fiberglass afire shot through with green stems. It’s what you seek. Muhlenbergia filipes, what locals call purple muhly grass, the legendary sweetgrass. The rarer and rarer commodity weavers must have.
“Grass getting so hard to find,” says Elizabeth Eady. “The guys who get it have to go so far sometimes.” Wearing a denim dress and a simple white top, she focuses on her hands as they work a spoon handle and grass. The faces of some people reveal the cumulative wisdom of years. Elizabeth is such a person. Seventy, she has been weaving baskets all her life. She says there’s no way she can estimate how many baskets she’s made. As she works the spoon handle coiling grass, she says in a matter of fact way, “I made my first piece before I went to the first grade.” She uses simple implements just as her predecessors did — forks and spoons. “That’s the way to go,” says Elizabeth. “Break those handles off, file ’em down, and start weaving.”
Elizabeth and her sister Mabel, (Elizabeth calls her May) sit in a stand off 17’s inbound lanes to Mount Pleasant. Their voices are soft, their words measured as if they’re timing them to the stitches they make. A green-and-white cement truck barrels by. A three-foot strip of grass and a four-foot sidewalk are all that separate them from the truck and its spiraling mix of cement. The plastic nailed to the stand flaps every time a truck roars by. Come winter the plastic will make the stand a shade warmer, keeping wind out, but it doesn’t mute traffic noise nor is it any protection from an out-of-control car.
“Do you worry about getting hit by a truck, “ I shout to Mabel.
“Every hour of every day,” she says.
The women work from 8:30 to 6:00 or 6:30 seven days a week, weather permitting. “Last summer was too hot. We stayed in the shade,” says Elizabeth.
When they arrive at their stand they unpack their baskets and hang them with care on nails jutting out the two by fours that frame their stand. Stand downwind of all those baskets and you’ll think you’re in the middle of a hay field. “When you clean the baskets. It makes the smell fresh,” says Elizabeth. “They’ll smell that way all their life.”
Mabel, who prefers that her photograph not be taken, works on a small basket. “How long does it take to make a basket like that,” I ask. A musical laugh best described as wind chimes escapes Mabel, a shy woman according to her sister. “I’m on my third day. I’ve got five more rows to go, so I’ll have four days in this basket,” she says. Four days of sitting by this murderer’s row of traffic. “You get used to it,” says Elizabeth.
Weaving baskets is so hard it’ll make you cuss. Damn this is hard. —Elizabeth Eady
“You saw my mother and aunt,” says Elizabeth. I had just told the ladies about seeing weavers back in the early 1960s when I was visiting my aunt and uncle. “If you saw weavers you saw them,” she says. The sister’s aunt, Katherine Cooper Johnson, taught them to weave. Their aunt, they say, was a perfectionist. “If I made a mistake my aunt would take the whole thing apart and I’d have to start all over,” says Elizabeth.
“Weaving baskets is so hard it’ll make you cuss,” says Elizabeth. “Damn this is hard.” To this day the women start over if they make a mistake. “ “Getting a basket started is the hardest part,” says Mabel.
“That’s how we were taught,” says Elizabeth. That has to be a tough way to go because both women agree the hardest part of weaving comes right up front—getting a piece started. Once a basket is off to a good start it becomes a matter of patience, skill, and technique passed down from generation. Slowly a work of art forms. The symmetry, precision, and alternating colors give sweetgrass baskets their classic, unmistakable appearance.
“Longleaf pine needles give the baskets their brown rings. We add bulrush too,” says Mabel. “Comes from the marsh.” As we tried to talk over the din of traffic I did a rough count of baskets. About 120 baskets were on display, many of complex construction … My guesstimate is that more than ten years’ work is on display, a Herculean amount of weaving, a small fortune.
Mabel, as if she’s reading my eyes, says, “It’s been a slow summer. All the rains and just slow in general.”
Elizabeth announces that she has to leave early to go to her church where she works part time. I offer to help her load her baskets but she declines.
“Thank you, but they have to be packed just so.”
Cell phones have entered weavers’ roadside huts, but basket making remains as it was when it came over from West Africa — art. The biggest and worst changes come from modern life’s callous disregard. Gated communities choke off access to the grass and widened highways and ongoing development squeeze the women into a narrow zone. That thin line running from stall to stall along the shoulder? Call it the twilight zone because sweetgrass basket weaving could be approaching its twilight. The weavers are dying and the grass is hard to get. Still, a glimmer of hope exists. “A lot more young people are into weaving,” says Mabel.
That’s good. We need weavers. Their baskets, borne of loving labor, remind us of those days long ago when form gave function a beautiful way to accomplish tasks. Separate that chaff … hold those vegetables … carry those shellfish … make life easier.
And what can be said about Elizabeth and Mabel? Well they have worked all their lives making baskets down by the Sweetgrass Highway just two miles from Hamlin Road. That’s where they grew up. In an era when people jump all over the country like cash-crazy crickets chasing the almighty dollar, these sisters have stayed the course, living and working just as their predecessors did. Life would be less beautiful without them.