The art of sweetgrass basket weaving, one of the oldest West African art forms, arrived in South Carolina in the 17th century with the arrival of West African slaves who were brought to America to work on Southern plantations. Today, sweetgrass basket weaving is a revered art form that entices collectors to the Lowcountry — especially to Mount Pleasant and Charleston — to both procure new pieces and to meet the artisans who make them.
Sweetgrass basket-making is a skill that has been passed down through generations, preserved by the Gullah community in the Lowcountry, who are descendants of West African slaves. The baskets were originally used to process rice, a common crop in both West Africa and South Carolina. The baskets are created by bundling dried sweetgrass, which tends to grow in the sandy soils found near the ocean, and coiling it into unique circular designs, a weaving technique unique to West Africa. Palmetto fronds secure the coils, and pine needles and bulrush are used to both fortify and decorate the baskets.
If you’re interested in getting an up-close-and-personal look at these works of art, here are four different Lowcountry spots where you can do just that. Here’s a guide for you to discover these woven wonders for yourself.
Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway
North Highway 17, Mount Pleasant, SC
Driving down Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant, SC, one can spot quaint roadside stands where intricately woven baskets hang from wooden boards. Known as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway, the 7-mile stretch of Highway 17 was designated as such in 2006 when sweetgrass baskets were named South Carolina’s state handicraft. The first sweetgrass basket stand is said to have opened on that road in the 1930s; within the past decade, however, highway development has made it more difficult for shoppers to stop. If you can, though, do stop as you’ll likely have the opportunity to meet the artisans who are creating the art — a treat in itself! Stand hours vary, but typical hours are 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., weather permitting.
Charleston City Market
188 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29401
Charleston City Market, often referred to as the epicenter of the sweetgrass basket tradition, is home to more than 50 Gullah sweetgrass artisans. Notable weaver Mary Jackson first showcased her baskets at the market in the 1980s, and some of her work has since gone on to be featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Prince of Wales is an owner of a Mary Jackson basket, as is the Emperor of Japan.
You can find a current list of sweetgrass basket artisans selling their work in Charleston City Market’s open-air sheds HERE, and often you can get in contact directly with the maker via the information listed there. The market is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Angel Oak Tree
3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island, SC 29455
Another popular location to find sweetgrass creations near Charleston is at the Angel Oak Tree, a massive, centuries-old live oak tree on Johns Island near Charleston. The tree is said to be one of the oldest trees in the Southeast, estimated to be as many as 500 years old. Behind the visitor’s center is where you can find Eva Wright, a sweetgrass basket maker whose small stand sits beneath the branches of the majestic oak. Eva offers beautifully detailed hand-woven creations Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
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The Sweetgrass Pavilion
99 Harry M. Hallman Jr. Blvd., Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
The Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion in Mount Pleasant is a popular venue located near the Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park. Designed to offer a more in-depth look at the history of sweetgrass basket weaving, the pavilion features informative kiosks and sweetgrass artifacts to showcase the long and rich culture of this art form. In addition to serving as an educational resource, the pavilion also allows local makers to showcase and sell their sweetgrass baskets. The pavilion is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Before you start planning your trip to South Carolina, keep in mind that hours and operations of these destinations may be abbreviated or amended due to COVID-19, so confirm that the businesses are open before you go.
For more vacation ideas, visit our travel archives HERE — and start planning your next getaway!