Lowcountry's sweetgrass basket makers fear knockoffs
Charleston sweetgrass basket maker Jennifer Broughton can spend days weaving a basket large enough to display a loaf a bread, delicately looping, twisting and knotting strands in the old and traditional way.
Sweetgrass: Where does it come from?
The grass thrives near brackish marshes, on coastal islands and in forests. The harvest time runs from late spring to about September. One local supply and gathering method is done through a collective where weavers pay a $25 fee and must contribute one small basket to be granted a portion of the harvest. Proceeds go back to local support and promotion. Charles Towne Landing State Park is one of about five favored collection sites.
What to look for
One of the primary construction prides in locally made baskets, such as the fruit basket (above) made by Kymberly I. Youson, is their tight weave that helps them hold water. Some of the ways to detect cheap knockoffs from abroad include:
Uniform grayish color, rather than a combination of pale greens and browns
Cracking or fraying
Plastic ties woven throughout
Hard and unpliable, or too pliable.
So when she learned a national home decorating company was selling mass-produced copies of baskets similar to the ones she makes, she was taken back.
Even more shocking is that they originated from the Philippines and carry a selling price of $25 for something Charleston weavers charge $200 or more.
“They are taking away our livelihood,” Broughton said last week outside the U.S. post office on Meeting Street where she and others have sold for decades.
“They are taking our business away.”
Lowcountry weavers say they were caught off-guard by the latest attempt to copy their work, this time by a mass marketer offering something “inspired by the beloved sweet grass baskets of the Carolina coast.”
The commercial baskets, part of a collaboration between Southern Living and Ballard Designs, are advertised for sale this spring.
Ballard's catalog, which runs 12 million print copies, shows a grass-style weave that press materials said comes from the designs “Charleston is known for.”
“Perfect for sharing bread around the table, it coordinates beautifully with our casual mix and match dinnerware,” the web version of the catalog boasted.
After The Post and Courier inquired about the catalog item, the basket's description was rewritten on Ballard's website, with the Carolina reference taken out.
The company wanted to be “sensitive to local artisans,” Jennifer Zawadzinski, director of communications for Time Inc. Lifestyle Group, said about the decision to change the language.
Basket weavers say attempts like these undercut their product's authenticity, opening the market to fakes.
“To me, it's a knock-off,” Lynette Youson, a basket weaver and co-chair of the Sweetgrass Cultural Art Festival Association, said after seeing a picture of the Ballard-produced rattan basket.
She worries the next negative step is to “do something like this on machines.”
The Lowcountry's famous coiled sweetgrass basket is part of a centuries-old tradition. Carried across the Atlantic by West Africans caught in the slave trade, they quickly became practical items on South Carolina plantations.
But it wasn't until the 1929 opening of the Grace Bridge — the first span linking downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant — that they gained status as a highly regarded collectable representative of the region. That's when an industrious Lottie “Winnee” Moultrie Swinton placed a chair next to U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant (now Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway), giving birth to the roadside basket stand.
Since then, the weavers have become so ingrained in local lore the S.C. Legislature made their baskets the official state handcraft in 2006.
Estimates are that as many as 300 women practice the art today from Georgetown to the barrier islands and south to the Georgia state line. For many, selling their baskets is a sole source of income, with some earning $17,000 a year or more.
This isn't the first time that weavers say their creations have been commercially threatened. In 2007, The Post and Courier examined the fear of fakes entering the local market, including from Asia. That investigation found imitations were available within the Highway 17 corridor, although they appeared to be generally of poor quality.
More alarming, though, was they were selling for at least three times cheaper than domestic versions, seldom priced higher than $30.
Being vigilant against similar attempts is not something weavers say they can let lapse.
“Imitations are painfully deceiving,” Joyce Coakley, a sweetgrass basket-maker, author and historian, told the newspaper in an e-mail last week.
One countermeasure, she said, is to use an upcoming sweetgrass summit in January to discuss ways of protecting the provenance of locally produced baskets.
If more isn't done, she added, both the region and the weavers will both suffer.
“When tourists and collectors purchase a Charleston sweetgrass basket, they are trusting the artisan to produce quality, authentic art with superior workmanship,” she said. “They want the history of a people who were able to retain the artistic character of their ancestors' 400-year history in America.”