Basket makers face competition from knockoffs

Jeanette Lee weaves a sweetgrass basket in her home Monday.

One basket a day. Six days a week.

That's how Jeannette Lee's mother and sister spent the Great Depression. Weaving sweetgrass, pine needles and bullrush into baskets on the side of the road, much like the West African slaves who brought the tradition to the Lowcountry more than 300 years ago.

"They didn't have a clock, but the Greyhound bus would come through at midnight. That's when they'd stop and go to bed," Lee recalled.

The baskets sold for 75 cents each, which equates to about $12 today.

The craft of making sweetgrass baskets is woven deep into the fabric of Charleston. Like shrimping, it was a necessity that became a vocation — a romantic but unglamorous way to cash in on an increasingly valuable resource. But like a tide of cheap shrimp raised on Asian farms, a flood of imported imitation baskets is flowing into Lowcountry stores and stands, threatening to spoil the market for an indigenous art form.

Lee, who has made sweetgrass for more than 50 of her 63 years, said the knockoffs are misleading tourists and harvesting dollars that otherwise would go to the 200 or so sweetgrass basket weavers in the Lowcountry. Last week, she rallied support from the Original Sweetgrass Marketplace Coalition, a trade group of some 164 artisans that she directs.

"This is taking from our history," Lee said. "We don't have any problem with people selling baskets, but don't pass it off as something that it's not. This is our state handicraft."

The imitations are generally harder than the local baskets. They are often frayed and tinged with gray rather than subtle shades of green and brown.

But they are also at least three times cheaper than domestic versions, seldom priced higher than $30.

Supply side economics

Local basket made said most of the foreign competition comes from White Harvest Trading Co., a firm that sells an array of Asian-made baskets and other crafts from its Pawleys Island headquarters and its Web site, www.whiteharvesttradingco.com.

David Bishop, who founded the company in 2002, said he has not been contacted by any local arti-sans and denied that he is trying to swipe the sweetgrass market. He said White Harvest does little wholesale business, and that the company's "seagrass" products that could be mistaken for sweetgrass baskets account for a tiny percentage of sales.

"Our focus is not to hurt anyone, but just to bring a product that customers would like to buy," Bishop said last week.

He then said, jokingly: "I actually didn't know that was against the law."

White Harvest is billed as a way to help impoverished Chinese villagers, not a profit pump. The company feeds a nonprofit group that donates funds to teach English and provides health care to his manufacturing base.

"This is more of a ministry," Bishop said. "We're not trying to be the next Pier One Imports or anything. ... If we upset the applecart, we're more than willing to work with people and do what we need to do."

Imports also are stacked up at Carolina Cider Co., two stores that carry Southern delicacies on U.S. Highway 17 near Beaufort. Tristan Lehnert, who started the retail business 10 years ago, said he sells locally made sweetgrass baskets when he can but has had trouble securing a steady supply.

"I realize that these people are just making them by hand and it's not a factory or something, but we're open all the time and we need to sell stuff all the time," Lehnert said.

He also noted that customers often buy the cheaper imitations to create an inexpensive gift basket of the local jams, benne wafers and other foods in his store.

"There's a world of difference between the two of them, and our customers can see it, but not everybody wants to spend $300 on a basket," he said. "We're not out to undermine anybody or mislead anybody."

Can't rush this

Making an authentic basket is a laborious process. About once a month, Lee wades into the Ashley River off Lockwood Drive, pulling up sweetgrass by its muddy roots as cars whiz by behind her and million-dollar yachts sway and clang in a nearby marina.

She stores her harvest in a garbage pail at her small home at the end of a dirt road in the Seven Mile section of Mount Pleasant. While a "Price is Right" rerun bellowed from her old television set, Lee went to work recently, as always, with her "nailbone," a little metal pick traditionally made by flattening a nail or whittling a bone from a cow.

She gathered loose grass into a bunch, poked the utensil through the tight wad of a completed row, withdrew it, threaded a strip of palmetto frond through the remaining hole, and pulled the fiber down tight before repeating the process.

"You cannot rush this," she said. "You've just got to have patience. Sometimes you don't even feel like picking one of these things up, you're so tired of it."

Lee's biggest baskets take two or three weeks to make and may fetch close to $200.

In recent years, Lee's craft has become a folk form of high art. Kisha Rawlinson, a basketmaker and College of Charleston graduate, sells some of her family's wares for up to $1,200 via her Web site, www.sweetgrassgreetings.com.

For U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a native of Sumter, sweetgrass baskets are a go-to gift that he regularly bestows upon fellow lawmakers and foreign dignitaries.

Now, an effort is under way to get the basketmaking communities dotted around the East Cooper region listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bobbing and weaving

Recently, local sweetgrass artisans have had to wrestle with a lot more than the bunches of plants in their calloused hands.

They have scrounged to secure materials and land on which to sell their wares, and they have scrapped with state regulators over taxes, business license fees and other issues.

Lawmakers often have come to their aid. Charleston city workers planted sweetgrass in the tidal flats ringing the peninsula, and in December, local governments created the Sweetgrass Basket Overlay District, which allows basket weavers to set up stands within roadside buffers on a 1 1/2-mile strip of Highway 17.

Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall helped broker that initiative and long has been a champion of sweetgrass weavers, but she said there is little the government can do about knockoff baskets.

"First of all, you don't even know who's doing it," Stokes-Marshall said. "And then how do you stop someone from just making something similar?"

Basketmakers believe the city of Charleston will be more receptive to their grievances.

Lee already has made her case to Councilman Wendell Gilliard, who said local governments should consider fines and other penalties to root the imports out of the market.

"This is a part of our history that should be protected at all costs," he said. "I've heard about it on the street and people want us to get involved at this point."

Reach Kyle Stock at 937-5763 or kstock@postandcourier.com.