African-American crafting can be cultural, political, celebratory, historical, deeply personal, and an act of storytelling. Traditions and techniques are passed on to new generations along with stories and histories, tall tales and advice for life. Read on to learn a little bit about African-American quilting and sweetgrass basket making. Click on the links in this post to find out more online. At the end, you will find a list of books where you read all about it!
Whether they are made by a grandma sitting by a wood-fueled potbelly stove over a month of evenings while telling family stories to her grandbabies or by a group of women - and men! - laughing, commiserating, advising, and generally having a good time creating community, African-American quilts are vibrant and unique. These artists tell stories through fabric and thread - stories of forgotten lives, stories of perseverance and struggle, stories of triumph and passion.
The Gee's Bend quilters are of particular note. They are a community of crafters that have been isolated to a large extent from outside influences and have made their own traditions of quilting. They have an admirable independent spirit and have made absolute works of art out of whatever they have access to. The quilts made from old denim work clothes are particularly striking: the indelible marks of lives lived granted new usefulness as bed coverings, lap warmers, and works of art. They are unique recordings of very personal histories. This one was made in 1970 by Annie Mae Young. It is called Bars.
Bisa Butler is an artist to fall in love with. Her use of color and texture is breathtaking. Here is a detail photo of one of her quilts, The Mighty Gents. The full quilt is 67"x78" - life sized - and uses no paint. Just different fabrics, like silk, wool, leather, cotton, and more.
Sweetgrass Basket Making
Sweetgrass basketry is recognized as the South Carolina State Handicraft and it's easy to see why. Modern sweetgrass baskets are gorgeous and artistic forms of a functional craft whose roots are in West African coil basketry, a skill brought to the United States by slaves and used on plantations to winnow rice. They are a marvel of creativity and engineering.
These baskets are emblematic of the Gullah-Geechee culture of the SC Lowcountry. They can be found all around Charleston and Mount Pleasant in roadside stands, gift shops, at the Charleston City Market, and online.
It is important to observe this historic Gullah tradition because it is our heritage. It also allows us to connect with the past and our ancestors. In order to know the future, we must respect our past and be thankful for the skills and stories that our ancestors passed down to younger generations. ~Delores and Dionne Jones, South Writ Large
They are most often made with sweetgrass, bulrush, pine needles, and saw palmetto fronds... all plants native to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. This is one of many reasons that conservation of our coast is essential, as well as access to the places where these plants grow. Due to the explosion in development along US17, once a quiet 2-lane highway and now a busy artery for traffic, there is less room to stop at the roadside stands. The 7-mile stretch of US17N, known as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway, is where you can buy these baskets directly from their makers. Gated communities and private property signs restrict access to traditional harvesting spots. Wild sweetgrass is better for basket-making because it has survived wind and rain; it is sturdier and more pliable than greenhouse-grown or cultivated varieties.
One of the most famous sweetgrass basket makers is Mary Jackson. She has been recognized around the world for her skill and knowledge. Below is an example of one of her baskets: it is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.
Here is a list of some of the books that can be found at Richland Library about African-American quilting and sweetgrass basket making. Enjoy!