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Learning the art of sweetgrass basketry

Published on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020

Henrietta Snype visited Howe Hall AIMS to teach the art of basket weaving

BCSD photo

Sweetgrass basket-making is an art form unique to the Lowcountry, and Howe Hall AIMS third-graders got to create their own works of art last week.

With help from Henrietta Snype, who spent a week visiting the school, the students created baskets, ornaments and pendants for necklaces – and it all ties into local history they have been learning at school.

Snype was born and raised in Mt. Pleasant and learned how to weave baskets at the age of 7 from her mother, Mary Mazyck. Snype’s grandmother, Elizabeth Johnson, was also a basket-weaver. Snype has passed the art form down to her children and grandchildren.

She also enjoys introducing the art to local students. She has been visiting schools for 30 years to teach the craft. This was her fourth year at Howe Hall AIMS.

Snype spent a week with the students. On Jan. 17 she helped them finish up their artwork.

“They’ve come a long way this week,” she said.

Sweetgrass basket-making ties into South Carolina history, which third-graders are learning about in their social studies class. Baskets are made from palmetto leaves, sweetgrass, bulrush and long leaf pine needles.

In addition to scissors, Snype used a tool called a nailbone to help the students make their items. A nailbone is the handle of a spoon or fork that has been filed to form a point. Historically the actual bones of animals were used to create the tool – hence the name.

Sweetgrass basketry is one of the oldest surviving African art forms in the United States. Sweetgrass basket-making can be traced back to the Wolof people of Senegal who weave a similar style of baskets. The coiled basket is an example of African cultural heritage that has survived the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Africans from the coast of West Africa had knowledge of rice cultivation and were particularly sought after in the Lowcountry. These people brought with them culture, art and wisdom and would later become the Gullah/GeeChee. The Gullah/GeeChee corridor stretches from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla., reaching 30 miles inland along the way.

Snype’s work has been featured across the world and in the Smithsonian Institute. Snype said with lots of local development going on, sweetgrass is becoming scarce; her hope is that students learn to appreciate the art form.

“This is the only place to find this (sweetgrass),” she said.

Henrietta Snype visited Howe Hall AIMS to teach the art of basket weaving

BCSD photo

Maria Earl, third-grade teacher at Howe Hall AIMS, said third-graders just completed their Applied Geography unit on climates and biomes of the world, and the six regions of South Carolina. This mini unit focuses on South Carolina’s coastal zone and how this artwork uses now-scarce natural resources.

Students will connect this local issue with the upcoming Applied Geography unit on natural disasters and human-caused disasters.

“They’re going to try to develop solutions to that,” Earl said.

Students will focus on spreading awareness, creating empathy, and designing solutions, in order to preserve both the natural resources and the cultures and artistry that employ them. 

“This was a good tie-in,” she said, adding third-graders will carry this knowledge into fourth grade, when they learn about the triangular trade.

Monica Kreber