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Archive for Saturday, July 28, 2007

Basket-weaving tradition threatened by development

July 28, 2007

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Henrietta Snype, 55, works on a sweetgrass basket July 10 at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Snype continues to hand down the tradition to her children and teaches the craft to students, but booming coastal development has made finding the clumps of long, swaying sweetgrass more and more difficult. The shortage is threatening the centuries-old black American folk art.

Henrietta Snype, 55, works on a sweetgrass basket July 10 at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Snype continues to hand down the tradition to her children and teaches the craft to students, but booming coastal development has made finding the clumps of long, swaying sweetgrass more and more difficult. The shortage is threatening the centuries-old black American folk art.

— Just a few years ago, Nikia Wigfall needed only to drive to the nearby marshes to harvest the sweetgrass that she and other descendants of slaves weave into the beautiful baskets sold to tourists in and around this antebellum port city.

But booming coastal development has made finding the clumps of long, swaying sweetgrass tougher and tougher.

Upscale homes have been built on traditional harvesting spots. And gated subdivisions - many with "plantation" in their names - often don't let the weavers come through to pluck the grasses that they coil with palmetto fronds, bulrushes and pine needles the way their parents and grandparents taught them to do.

The shortage is threatening the centuries-old black American folk art.

Some artisans are being forced to either buy the grass or venture hours from their wooden, roadside stands to gather the stalks.

"I have been as far as Savannah," 110 miles away, said Wigfall, 47, who learned the craft as a toddler. "Some weavers and their spouses have been as far as Florida."

The baskets are as much a part of Charleston as carriage rides past the city's pastel homes and the ring of church bells on a sultry July breeze. They are sold in the city's open-air market and on the stone steps of the federal building in the heart of the historic district.

The true center of sweetgrass basket weaving, however, is a few miles to the east, across the sweeping Cooper River, in Mount Pleasant, the fastest-growing town in South Carolina.

U.S. 17 Highway, which has a sign proclaiming it the "Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway," runs past the moss-shrouded hamlets of small homes and brick churches where blacks have long kept the craft alive.

The tightly coiled baskets contain geometric patterns created with the chocolate brown, khaki and green strands. Some of the larger baskets sell for hundreds of dollars.

"My great-great-grandfather was a basket maker and my grandmother taught me when I was 4 or 5 years old," 71-year-old Alma Washington said. "It's something I hope will never die."

Sweetgrass is a soft, pliable grass that grows along the coastal plain and once was freely harvested by weavers.

But Mount Pleasant, population 58,000, has nearly tripled in size in the past two decades thanks to transplants attracted by the coast, the climate and low cost of living compared to places like the Northeast.

"There is a tremendous amount of history in this area that is unknown, especially among people who migrate here from other areas of the country," said Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall.

In yet another threat to the tradition, fewer children are learning the craft from their parents. Some weavers blame the Internet and video games as distractions, but a study for the Society for Economic Botany also found that many weavers considered sweetgrass such a valuable commodity that they wouldn't allow children to play with it and learn how to weave.

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