Leave it to the Experts
When I visited the open market in Charleston I was drawn immediately to the sweet grass basket weavers. The stacks of baskets next to the women had a refined quality not present in any other hand woven basket I have seen. The wrappings looked like strips of veneered wood and the bundles of stems they secured had smooth uniform diameters. Picking up and handling the baskets was a surprise. The feel was solid and strong. Then I noticed the prices. Yikes! $50 for a medium sized basket and $25 for a token souvenir. I left without a basket.
Later, I found out that the baskets are made with common marsh grasses that grow in the swamps. Very few people sell the finished baskets online. When they do, the prices are sky high. I also learned that the swamps were full of alligators. The extreme prices began to make sense to me!
I have since seen exquisite examples of sweet grass basket weaving. The beauty of the contrasting light grass bundles and dark, woody windings appealed to me. I began to so some research, hoping I might be able to make a basket on my own. I wanted to duplicate the examples or even create innovative new containers using the same technique.
First, I tried to find some Sweet/Chord Grass. There are more than five different grasses that are commonly named Sweet Grass and several grasses commonly called Cord Grass. More searching finally revealed that Smooth Cord Grass (Spartina alterniflora) is the stuff of which the stem bundles are made. The windings around the Chord Grass were long strips of stiff Saw Palmetto (Seronoa repens) stem material about ¼ of an inch wide. Finding materials was proving frustrating, and it looked like my only chance of gathering materials involved wading into the swamps.
I caught a brief demonstration of sweet grass basket weaving on a morning news show. The basket ladies talked about acquiring a proper tool to pioneer the openings in the grass bundles so the winding strips could penetrate them and connect the chord-like bundles. Many of the weavers had heirloom spoons that had been sharpened by their grandmothers to form smooth points. The spoons didn’t damage the bundled grass stems. The dull, pointed metal was forced through the chords to form slits in the grass. After the spoon started a hole in the stem bundle, the Saw Palmetto ribbon winding was sewn through the middle of the chord slits to bind the chord as it was wrapped around in a circle. The demo gave me a good idea of the necessary tools I would need, but the morning news only allows a few seconds for stories not related to politics or disaster.
One spring, I had the great opportunity to have someone show me one-on-one how sweet grass baskets are made, and how to gather the materials used to make them. Lula and George Walker on Sapelo Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia were gracious and patient enough to demonstrate basket construction to me. The Geechee communities of the Atlantic barrier islands evolved from the families of former slaves brought from western Africa, Sierra Leone, to farm the rice and cotton plantations. The story is long. The history of the treatment of the residents of Sapalo has been unfair, and exploitation of the situation revolves around money. Some of the residents leave Sapalo and never grasp the beauty and importance of the Gulla-Geechee culture until they get older and wiser. Sweet grass baskets are part of that culture. George noted that sweet grass basket weaving is a dying art on the island. Lulu and George were perfect hosts, and had an obvious, deep love for the island. Here’s what they showed me.
First, collect the materials. Lulu and George sent me home with a car trunk full of already-gathered chord grass and Saw Palmetto stems. I am assuming the Chord Grass was gathered while in a boat. I saw more than one alligator while there, and there is no way anyone unfamiliar with the marshes should attempt to gather Chord Grass on their own.
The Saw Palmetto was growing everywhere as the main understory plant of the Oak hammocks on the island, and I watched George cut nearby stems with a sharp knife. After the Saw Palmetto stems are harvested, they can be peeled. The three flat sides of the stem form three stiff ribbons, by carefully splitting the stem with a sharp knife. Save some Saw Palmetto stem scrapings for the starter. Keep the stem ribbons moist in water.
Use only the refined stem portions of the Smooth Cord Grass stems, and remove the dried outer part of the culm. Allow the flexible grass to dry before weaving. Lulu and George had a mound of chord grass near their home, about the size of a large pile of fire wood. Each round chord of bundled blades is continuous, with new blades added while weaving to keep the winding chord a uniform diameter. Loose, stray blades are not a problem, because the winding stems of Saw Palmetto keep them in place during the weaving process.