Artists find creative ways to use sweetgrass as part of household decor
By Helen Mitternight
Special to The Post and Courier
Jul 4 2015 4:00 pm
Barbara Manigault uses sweetgrass to trim a clock.
Sweetgrass baskets are as Charleston as pimento cheese and shrimp and grits. But if you’re trying to decorate your Lowcountry house, there may be only so many baskets you can distribute throughout your home without looking like ... well, a basket case.
Fortunately, there are sweetgrass crafts beyond the traditional basket and they still bear the heart and art of the sweetgrass culture. In fact, some of them qualify as fine art. Like any good art, the pieces are a reflection of the artists who created them.
Barbara Manigault of Mount Pleasant learned the art of sweetgrass weaving by the time she was nine years old from her mother, who is one of 20 children, and from her grandmother, the mother of the 20.
“We were all very close. It was like having two mothers,” she says. “My mother was the oldest, and so I would have aunts and uncles who were the same age I was.”
Weaving was a way to make a little extra money while Manigault worked at Roper Hospital. But it was difficult to keep a job when she never knew when her son’s school would call and say that she had to pick him up after another asthma attack.
By 1997, she had left Roper and started weaving sweetgrass with her grandmother as a full-time job. She says she was surprised at what a good living one could make.
“I told my grandmother, ‘I didn’t know you make this kind of money,’ and my grandmother said, ‘Yeah, baby, and if you make larger baskets, you make larger money.’ ”
Soon, at her grandmother’s urging, she was looking beyond baskets at other household items and she began making napkin rings, picture frames, even lamps. Her husband Raymond has joined in.
“Raymond would look at something I did and say, ‘That don’t look right.’ And I would tell him to be quiet,” she says. “But then, after 23 years, he told me his mama had taught him to weave and I said, ‘OK, you can make me some bottoms.’ But he said, ‘Oh, no, I do my own.’ The first thing he did was a traditional sewing basket. I was quite impressed. I said, ‘You mean all this time, you could have been working with me?’ Now, when I get too many orders, I give him some. And he does lamps and other things.”
The two have been in business together for 15 years, and they can be found at the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square every Saturday.
In addition to the traditional baskets, Manigault offers clocks, mirrors, picture frames and lamps. Her prices range from about $35 for a small picture frame to closer to $450 for a clock. Two Meeting Street Inn uses her sweetgrass napkin rings in the dining room and sells to guests who want to take the fine weaving home with them.
The sweetgrass comes from men who brave the snakes and bees in Bluffton every June and July before hunting season starts to bring back the dried sweetgrass. Lately, though, Manigault has been buying her own sweetgrass plants as a hedge against the day when the grasses are cut down to make way for Bluffton development. The plants along the highways in Charleston are too thick to make her more delicate crafts such as earrings, so she says she may have to produce her own sweetgrass one day.
The new guy
Joseph Albano moved to Mount Pleasant from New Jersey almost four years ago when he had to take a buyout package from a large health care company. He brought his wife, his son, and later, his elderly parents.
Albano doesn’t golf or fish. He thought about consulting, but after he saw the basket sellers, he wanted to do something with sweetgrass to promote his adopted home. For some reason he still can’t explain, he had a vision of a furniture knob that incorporated sweetgrass.
He bought a knob from a do-it-yourself site online and was fiddling with it when his wife brought home a bookmark she found at Barbara Manigault’s stand. The sweetgrass charm dangling off the bookmark was the perfect size. He snipped it off and popped it into the knob. Perfect fit.
“This is exactly what I’ve been seeing in my head,” he told his wife. “That’s the vision.”
He immediately stopped looking for a retirement activity and began to make his dream a reality. His first step was to look for a better knob source.
Brad Williams, owner of Charleston Hardware Store, wound up being his source.
The next step was to find the weavers. That proved tricky. Sweetgrass weavers are used to making products that vary by material and mood. Albano needed consistency and precision.
He talked to several weavers, including Manigault, who directed him to other weavers who specialized in miniatures, such as Adell Swinton.
“I told (the weavers) that I need a model-like production. They have to fit. I will give you the specs, I will give you a prototype. I will reject some of them, so there will be some waste,” he said.
It was a new model and many, including Manigault, told him the precision would not be worth their time. Eventually, he settled on Swinton and two other weavers who could do precise work with a tiny weave. He pays the weavers cash on delivery for the tiny sweetgrass inlays, and then he and his wife assemble them by hand.
“I use a bezel setting and I use the glue the weavers told me to use,” Albano says. “I force the weave in and it makes a little popping sound when it falls into place.”
The knobs and drawer pulls are available at Bird Decorative Hardware & Bath in Charleston and Foxworth Decorative Hardware in Mount Pleasant, as well as on his website,www.coastaltouch.com. The knobs retail for $29 and the pulls for $59.
Albano also makes a sweetgrass-topped stainless steel winestop for $39.99 that is sold at several kitchen and lifestyle stores in the area.
Georgette Wright Sanders of McClellanville weaves sweetgrass as an accent to the pottery she makes. She names every piece and each piece contains an inspirational message.
Sanders says her combination of pottery with sweetgrass is unique.
“It’s a marriage of the natural fibers being rended from the earth and clay embracing one another and celebrating their own uniqueness,” she says.
She began, as so many sweetgrass artists do, with baskets, but says she “had a vision” of combining pottery with sweetgrass. Her husband invested by buying her a potter’s wheel, and she turned her pantry into a small studio.
To honor her vision, Sanders would call her company, “By His Designs Legacies Tied By Nature” and she believes that each design has a bit of divine inspiration.
Sanders was taught traditional sweetgrass weaving by her family, but she evolved to weave with less traditional materials. Pottery was a whole new venture. She taught herself how to create pottery by reading books, poring over Internet sites and watching countless YouTube videos. Eventually, she decided to create her own glaze.
“I wanted to know what was safe, what was unsafe,” she recalls of her research. “Being a person who has respiratory problems, I wanted to know what my body was being subjected to. I wanted to safeguard myself.”
That was almost nine years ago and Sanders has since sold not only at the farmers market but also at the City Market and to private collectors. Sanders says she has sold pieces to people on every continent and her creations, which range from $15 for a small piece to several hundred dollars, have been in many local museums and galleries.
But not every customer understands the art of sweetgrass decor.
As Manigault says, “Some folks see the grass and they don’t see the work of art. I wish that everybody would be educated on what love has been put into some of this work.”