The traditional art of sweetgrass basket weaving, celebrated in the South, was developed out of necessity. Enslaved Africans were made to work the land and waters of the Low Country of South Carolina and needed their tools to work well. As Black people have always done in this country, they made something out of nothing, or not very much. And like other traditional arts, sweetgrass weaving techniques were passed down via oral tradition from one generation to the next. That is just how Renesha Wolfe learned.
Since Reconstruction, weavers have used the talents cultivated in captivity to navigate and survive unfulfilled freedom. That tradition of making a living doing “what we have always done” continues along Highway 17 and at the Downtown Market in Charleston. Starting at 13 years old, Renesha was taught by her aunt the art of “sowing” baskets. She was taught orally, at the knee of an elder, as has been done for generations in the Low Country. As Renesha explains it, at first, it was simply among chores that needed doing. Then, she saw the money that came from the work. Now. as an adult, she understands the inherent history and pride in what she has learned.
I had one of the most enlightening conversations with Renesha, where she schooled me not only in the craft but also in the specific Low Country beauty of where she grew up and still resides, Mount Pleasant. She corrected me, in love, on an assumption I had made. I learned that I would have had the opportunity to learn the skill only if I lived in a specific community within Mount Pleasant and grew up in a family that “sewed” baskets. This fact highlights how unique, genuine Low Country, Sweetgrass baskets are.
When Renesha Wolfe could not secure a space in the elders-controlled Downtown Market, and then COVID virtually stopped the travel and shopping along Highway 17, this woman of the Internet Age moved towards offering her art online. She launched a website, and while other sweetgrass weavers were struggling, Renesha was able to make not only sales outside South Carolina but also from patrons all over the world. As a champion for the traditional craft and with an artist’s heart, Renesha has been able to develop new sought-after designs that encourage collecting.
I am so proud to be a part of the African diaspora. From the brains to the beauty, we have it going on! We are scholars, inventors, and creatives. Please join me in celebrating more living proof of the brilliance passed down to us: Renesha Wolfe!
You can visit Renesha’s Etsy and follow her on Instagram!
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