Hilton Head hay cart artisans worry about the future

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In front of the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island, Michael Smalls and Dino Badger, the self-proclaimed “Gullah Elders,” sat, meticulously sewing the first steps of a pair of sweetgrass baskets.

In the shade of a large live oak tree covered in Spanish moss that swayed with the breeze, the sun shining through the branches on a warm spring morning, a woman stopped on Tuesday to admire the beautifully crafted baskets in front of her .

Then two other gentlemen moved to observe the table laid with baskets as palmetto roses caught their eye.

Michael Smalls, a seventh generation basket seamstress, has been sewing baskets for over 50 years and was first taught the craft by his mother and great-grandmother when he was 7 years old.

“When I was about that age in Mount Pleasant, they had roadside stalls where they sold their wares and they would sit under the trees and do that,” Smalls said. “So, being young, I was playing until I decided I wanted to learn how to do it.”

Sewing sweetgrass baskets is a craft originating in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He was brought to the Lowcountry with those who were enslaved. The art of basket weaving was first used for everyday life, such as bearing children and gathering food. Kept alive by passing basket stitching techniques from generation to generation, these intricate baskets now serve more of a decorative purpose and have since acquired more embellished designs.

With the number of skilled artists dwindling, Smalls worries that sweetgrass baskets are a dying art.

“It has become a dying art. We can’t really get our young people interested in doing that,” Smalls said.

Dino Badger, a former apprentice of Smalls, learned the art of basket weaving during his apprenticeship about 10 years ago, when he first visited the museum where Smalls was working at the time. Surprised at first by the basket prices, his first thought was “wow”. Badger then spent more time with Smalls, learning the history of the baskets. What finally attracted him the most was the educational aspect: the story of the origin of the baskets, who made the baskets and the stories associated with them. These inspired him.

On this spring morning, families began to approach the two men one after another and a crowd began to gather around the table. Each of them seemed impressed with the craftsmanship in front of them, commenting on the beauty of the baskets and the impressive skill required to shape them.

With the sun still shining, a caterpillar climbing up the side of the table, families smiling, and the blind standing out from time to time, more and more sweetgrass left the dwindling pile as the two weavers continued to sew.

Just as it takes years to learn and a lifetime of new ideas, each basket takes time to create. Larger baskets can take four to five days to complete. A small basket only takes a few hours. It is entirely in the basket drain.

Many see the basket prices and wonder how something locally sourced and natural can be so expensive. There are reasons why these baskets are sold and at a relatively high price and it’s not just for beauty and longevity. These are reasons that others might not expect.

“Certainly the materials. Materials are very scarce,” Smalls said of the basket price.

The sweetgrass used to create the baskets is a special grass that does not grow just anywhere. The two basket crafters must therefore search the surrounding areas, such as swamps and forests, to find the specific herbs they need. A few local plots of land have become available for them to share their crops.

In addition to sweet grass, which is the main material, pine needles and rush are used for coloring and contrast and dried saw palmetto leaves are used for binding.

“We collect our own materials, as well as purchases, because Dino and I usually can’t collect enough to take us through the year,” Smalls said. “So we have to go buy because we have a window period. Grasses actually grow in the spring, they are harvested in the summer, they flower in the fall and then they die in the winter. This process we do every year.

The scarcity of hand-collected materials should be enough to persuade any buyer that the price is worth it. However, many locals and tourists overlook the significance of these baskets and the fact that they can only truly be found in the South Carolina Lowcountry. There’s the history, the culture, and the possibility that they won’t be around for long. Their survival depends on the next generation and the following generations who choose to take an interest in them.

“The materials, they are handmade of course. They represent a culture. So it’s cultural. This is really the only place you can buy them. You can’t go anywhere else. Must be between this area and Charleston. That’s where all your main basket weavers are,” Smalls said. “And our generation has diminished so much of course, most of the last generation that they died or passed on, so with this generation, if we don’t get another generation, that will be it.”

To help prevent the end of sweetgrass baskets and see them endure for generations, Smalls and Badger lead classes for the public and visit schools in the community, teaching third graders and other ages. the history, culture and process of making sweetgrass. basket.

“Our main goal is to teach them how to do it. Even if they decide they don’t want to do it now,” Smalls said. “But, at least later in life, they can do it again. Like me, I learned when I was 7 years old. Of course, I walked away from that, I did my teenage thing, I got jobs and then I decided, “Hey, I don’t want this to die. So we started educating.

The duo are so passionate about the art and its importance that they quit their careers and made it their mission to educate and continue the famous tradition of sweetgrass basket sewing.

“It means a lot to me because since doing this I’ve seen where it’s brought communities together,” Badger said. “This, what we are doing right now, is an ambassador to bring people together. That’s why it’s so important. In doing so, we have established a communication dialogue with these baskets. These baskets opened so many different doors, different arenas, to meet so many different people from different parts of the world and it all started with basket making. That’s why it’s so important to me that we pursue this because it’s not just about making a basket or making money. It’s a matter of communication and coming together.

As Badger spoke, families watched, listened, and smiled. A young boy was learning to sew a basket from the very one Badger was working on with the artist’s fingernail bone hanging around the boy’s neck.

A nail bone is a tool used, usually holding the cut and filed end of a spoon handle, to shape a basket and push sweet grass through during the sewing process.

“That’s why it’s very important to me that this art form, this craft, this art continues because it brought so many people together,” Badger said. “We give lessons and you’d be surprised what you can learn about a person rather than making a basket, because while we’re making a basket, we’re communicating. And we talk and it is a dialogue to connect other dialogues.

“We use these baskets as a bridge to communicate. So it goes to a deeper depth, to a greater height, to a higher height when we make these baskets. It’s more than just watching the basket, but it contributes so much to today’s society. That’s why it’s so important to me that we keep doing it, because it’s a beacon of hope. It is a beacon of light. It attracts people because when they see these baskets, they think, “Oh my God, this is so beautiful” and they come here and it’s like this family here. It drew them in, and now they’re watching Michael shoot hoops. And now we can establish a dialogue, we can talk.

As Badger spoke, smiles appeared on the faces of the families. A woman in the group thanked Smalls and Badger for what they were doing. She shared how she stayed listening to him talk for so long because she was so okay with it.

This opened up a conversation between the three of them about how his family had recently hosted a Chinese New Year event in New Jersey. There they had a craft, which was also a centuries-old tradition, which she had grown up doing. She exclaimed that she was so excited to see the baskets being made and talked for a while about the Gullah culture and the process of making the baskets. She also said she saw the similarities between the sewing process and materials of sweetgrass baskets and that of tatami, a Japanese floor mat woven from grasses and straw.

“That’s why it’s so important that we do this, because people can come from all over the world and identify with what Michael and I do,” Badger said. “It’s very gratifying to see people identify with this and connect with their traditions. It shows that we have more in common than unusual.

This story was originally published April 15, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Sarah Claire McDonald is a duty reporter for The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. She specializes in writing unique, audience-focused stories that highlight people, places and events in the Lowcountry. Originally from the Midwest, Sarah Claire studied news media, communication and English at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where she graduated in 2021.

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