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Artisan teaches students to sew sweetgrass baskets

Artisan teaches students to sew sweetgrass baskets
By     jessica      johnson

Thursday,June 26, 2008
“Who’s next?” Harriet Bailem Brown calls out to a line of children circled around
her.

A dozen children ages 7-12 stand around a table in the G.M. Darby Building
waiting for Brown, their sweetgrass basket instructor, to show them what to
do next.

It’s the fourth day of a five-day sweetgrass basketry camp, and some of the
baskets are almost finished.

Brown was much younger than most kids in the room when she first coiled
sweetgrass, stitching it together with palmetto strips. She learned to weave at
age 4, 68 years ago.

“It wasn’t a pleasure for me, it was a must,” Brown said.
Making the baskets has been Brown’s livelihood for almost as     long as she can
remember. She continued to sew baskets even while she worked as a fabric presser
in New York City, ironing clothes for Macy’s Department Store windows. She sent
her works back home to her mother, who sold them at a family basket stand on
Long Point Road.

She came back to the Lowcountry in 1968 and has been a teacher for almost as
long.

“Try not to snap a stitch,” Brown says to the children.

She shows students one at a time how to weave, and still keeps track of the
fidgeting kids behind her.

“I      know that was Jack,” she says, trying to get them to behave. A few
minutes later, the boys are restless again. Brown hears a soft thud, and then
laughter.

“Billy? What happened, Billy?” Brown says.

The boy answers, “Nothing,” then climbs back into his chair.

“Oh, something happened, Billy,” she says.

She doesn’t look back but adds in new grass to a waiting student’s basket,
pushing it through pale palmetto loops and tightening the grass into place with
another palmetto strip.

Brown makes the baskets’ first coils, which she calls starters, for young students.

“The beginning is the hardest part,” Brown said.

The first knots are too complicated for a child to master in just five days.

At the end of each two-hour class, students take their basket homes to sew a few
more rows. Some days, they make a lot of headway, but not always.

“Some days,      you are just not always up to it,” said Rebecca Forry, 10, of
North Carolina, who was visiting her grandparents in Mount Pleasant.

Rebecca wanted to take the five-day class after she saw a basket hanging at
Charleston’s downtown Market.

“I thought they looked neat, and I wanted to make some,” Rebecca said.

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June 26, 2008 Posted by | Post & Courier | Leave a comment