Sweetgrass Basket Making at Coastal Discovery Museum

If you have read this blog before, you know that I adore The Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn & it’s commitment to preserving Gullah Culture. Every time I hear of an opportunity to expose Gray (2 years old) to Native Island living, I jump at the chance.  The latest opportunity came about by participating in the sweetgrass basket-making class at the Coastal Discovery Museum one Saturday. The class, led by Charleston Native, Daurus Niles is taught once a month on Saturday’s and is a way to enjoy a genuine lowcountry experience on your next trip to Hilton Head Island.

Gray and the sweetgrass basket “starter”

Sweetgrass basket making is a Gullah/Geechee tradition that dates back to Africa.  300 years ago, the baskets made primarily by men. When farming and agriculture progressed, over time, men left the basket making tradition for work.  Then, as slaves, women (and men) who were healthy & able, worked in the fields.  The basket making was then left to elderly or pregnant women. Now, there are a small group of people committed to keeping this tradition & cultural heritage alive…you can find them selling their baskets in the open-aired markets of Charleston & Beaufort, or on the property of Coastal Discovery Museum daily.

Charleston Native, Daurus Niles leads the class

Table of sweetgrass, bulrush, pine needles & palm frond strips

When we first arrived, we went around the table and introduced ourselves.  Daurus told us about her & her family’s history of sweetgrass basket making and explained all the tools to the group.  We started off with a “starter” basket, seen above.

The baskets are made up of the following materials;

  • Sweet Grass – found in wooded swamp areas but rare to find in nature now, usually cultivated in landscaping
  • Bulrush – which is a saltwater marsh grass
  • Long Leaf Pine Needles
  • Palm Fronds, stripped

The basket making “tool” was the end of a fork or spoon shown below.  Sawed off with the markings of years of basket making, these “tools” are called “nail-bones”, as historically they were first the ribcages of a cow or horse, then nails and now the end of a utensil.  You could tell mine had years of love and thousands of hours of basket making with it.

A basket in the making

Gray was a little too young to spend the hour and a half class making the basket so we went and explored the property.

The old Hack pool once was home to an alligator!

Needing a break, we sat outside and played in the fountain, which took the place of the pool when the property was the old Hack hunting grounds.  We walked on the pier and watched for birds and fiddler crabs and walked all around the property – seeing the bee’s that make authentic Honey Horn Honey (available in the gift shop) – walking through the Gullah garden –  and visiting the Marsh Tacky Gullah Horses, Comet & Tadpole.


Gray hollering for fiddler crabs!

Gullah Garden

The bees who produce local “Honey Horn Honey” which you can find in the gift shop at the museum

Wandering around the property, we found Michael Smalls (cousin to Daurus), a Native Island sweetgrass basket maker who sells his baskets at Coastal Discovery Museum daily.  Michael told us tales of leaning the art of sweetgrass basket making from his family and how he decided to quit his job and focus on this art full-time, ensuring he helps to preserve Gullah Culture.

Gray collecting rocks for Mr. Smalls

Basket maker Michael Smalls shows off his “nailbone”

I encourage you to take a sweetgrass basket making class at the museum during your next vacation. It is a great way for a family of all ages to enjoy their time together while learning about a culture that is worth preserving.  These baskets are made with love, heart, history and patience, in the atmosphere of the Museum, steeped in history.

If you go:

Call Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn at 843.689.6767 x 0 to book the class.

Find a list of all of their classes online here: www.coastaldiscovery.org

Comet giving Gray kisses

Michael Smalls sells his baskets daily at Coastal Discovery Museum