Fads come and go, and styles change. But sweetgrass baskets, carefully crafted by Lowcountry weavers, endure as functional works of art, passed from generation to generation.
It isn’t surprising that companies, from time to time, come out with knockoffs. Imitation is indeed a sincere form of flattery, and there is lots to admire about genuine sweetgrass baskets. Even the simplest are graceful, with varied hues of grass twisted and coiled into art.
It also isn’t surprising that local basket makers feel threatened that Ballard’s Designs, in collaboration with Southern Living, is offering similar baskets made in the Philippines and sold at a fraction of the cost of real ones. Although they lack some of the local baskets’ durability and color, Joyce Coakley, a sweetgrass basket maker, author and historian, calls the imitations “painfully deceiving.” She says basket makers should find a way to recognize and protect the provenance of locally produced baskets.
The S.C. Legislature, which made sweetgrass baskets the official state handcraft in 2006, should recognize the important cultural and economic role sweetgrass basket makers play and should try to help protect their products and their livelihood. Certainly local and regional governments will want to help also.
But what is most likely to stand legitimate sweetgrass baskets in good stead is their quality and beauty. Reporter Schuyler Kropf wrote that knockoffs tend to be a uniformly grayish and they crack or fray. They also are made with the use of plastic ties, and while some are too pliable, others are the opposite.
The people who opt to pay $25 for a Philippine basket will get what they pay for. The people who instead pay $200 or more for a locally designed and painstakingly crafted basket, made the way they have been made for centuries — first in Africa and later in America by African slaves — get much more. The process has been passed down through the generations here, and there are as many as 300 basket weavers practicing the art along South Carolina’s coast.
The value of authentic sweetgrass baskets is recognized far beyond the Lowcountry. In 2008, Mary Jackson was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, often called a “genius grant,” for her work with sweetgrass. Her pieces have been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. Prince Charles owns one of her baskets.
Visitors often have as one of their favorite memories of the Lowcountry encounters with basketmakers on Highway 17 N or on a sidewalk in Charleston.
The Lowcountry basket makers and their superior product will continue to flourish despite the competition. Witness the generations of satisfied customers.