This South Carolina Sweetgrass Basket Maker Is Sharing The Art With Future Generations

For Andrea “Annie” Cayetano-Jefferson, this tradition ties her to generations of Gullah people, including her mother and daughter.

<p>Peter Frank Edwards</p>

Peter Frank Edwards

My aunt Linda used to tell me, ‘Nobody has to make a basket. It’s a want, and if you want to make it, you’re going to have to make it right.’ I was 5 or 6 years old, but I was determined. I wanted it bad,” laughs Andrea “Annie” Cayetano-Jefferson, a sixth-generation Gullah sweetgrass artist who lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Basket weaving is one of the oldest African art forms still practiced in the United States, says Cayetano-Jefferson, and it can be traced back to enslaved people. “Because of our ancestors’ knowledge of rice harvesting, they already knew how to make baskets when they came here, so they just used materials similar to what they’d found in Africa’s rice-growing regions,” she says. In coastal South Carolina, that meant using a combination of bulrush and split oak. Bulrush (which is pulled from the marsh) still makes up the vessels today, along with sweetgrass, palmetto fronds, and longleaf pine needles.

Related: Gullah Magic in Charleston, South Carolina

It’s a craft her family has passed down over many years—one she learned from her aunts and mother and taught her daughter. “We can count back as far as seven generations of sweetgrass basket sewers,” says Cayetano-Jefferson, who’s the only one of 19 grandchildren to pursue the art as a full-time job. “No one wanted to sew baskets when I was younger...in some people’s eyes, especially in the Gullah community, art isn’t seen as a worthy career choice.”

<p>Peter Frank Edwards</p>

Peter Frank Edwards

For a time, Cayetano-Jefferson also gave up making them. “I didn’t want sweetgrass baskets to define me,” she says. “I felt like I was so much more than a basket lady—that’s what it was seen as—and I didn’t want to be just that.” She picked up the art again while working as a caregiver for a woman with dementia. After she died, Cayetano-Jefferson realized that none of the woman’s children ever learned to cook the recipes of hers that they remembered so fondly. “I thought, ‘When I pass, who is going to get my nail bone [a tool used for making baskets]?’ ” recalls the artist, who’s pictured above with her daughter, Chelsea. “That’s when I applied for the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Initiative Grant to teach Chelsea how to sew baskets the right way.”



“My baskets will always, forever be my babies. If it’s a unique one I made, I can tell you what I was doing, how I was feeling, and why it ended up that way.”

Andrea "Annie" Cayetano-Jefferson



“The right way” is a very involved and time-consuming process—one that begins with harvesting grasses from along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which reaches from Florida through coastal Georgia and into the Carolinas. The materials are then dried in the sun (which can take up to two weeks, depending on the plant and the weather) before they’re stored in a climate-controlled shed until Cayetano-Jefferson is ready to sew. “Everything’s done with love,” she says.

This level of devotion has also fueled her commitment to properly representing the artistic tradition on a broader scale, forging a partnership with Etsy’s Uplift Makers Program and collaborating on a collection with singer John Legend. “I want to shine a light on the Gullah Geechee culture,” she explains. “In order for our communities to thrive, our arts have to thrive.”

Shop the baskets at gullahsweetgrassbaskets.com, or see some in person at our 2024 Idea House, which opens for tours in August.

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