Many African cultures in the United States have been fighting to keep their traditions and unique way of life alive, and now, an online retail outlet is helping the Gullah community in Charleston, South Carolina, use tech to reach a wider audience.
It used to be the only way to purchase one of the exquisite, handmade baskets unique to the culture was to physically go to markets in South Carolina. The artists relied on tourists to come see their pieces, and some of the weavers told CNN the income was less than steady.
The tradition goes back to the 1700’s when slaves from West Africa were brought to the United States. They were forced to work in rice paddies, cotton fields and indigo plantations along the South Carolina-Georgia seaboard, where the moist climate and fertile land were very similar to their African homelands.
After the abolition of slavery, the Gullah community settled in remote villages around the coastal swath, where, thanks to their relative isolation, they formed strong communal ties and a unique culture that has endured for centuries.
A tradition kept alive for generations to remember where they came from
When the pandemic hit, Annie Cayetano-Jefferson, a sixth generation Gullah basket weaver, explored how to get their products online, and then Etsy, a popular online retailer, stepped in with Nest, a nonprofit that cultivates responsible growth and creative engagement of the artisan and maker economy, to elevate their platform and exposure.
Cayetano-Jefferson said her family has been making pieces of art and selling them in the Charleston city market for more than 35 years, and their family’s unique weaving style has been passed down for generations.
“I have been weaving baskets since I was about five or six years old. We still harvest our own materials. We still dry it. We do everything from start to finish,” she said.
“We sell baskets because we want to honor our ancestors, and we don’t want to forget where we came from in the past and what those before us have paid for us. We want to just take advantage of what already comes natural.”
For the first time their work isn’t relying on tourists
Etsy saw the work of 16 women and decided to help build shops on their website via their Uplift Initiative, which aims to bring more economic opportunities to creative entrepreneurs.
“We’re really trying to enable renowned, but often economically disenfranchised communities, to help showcase their work and build an online presence,” Dinah Jean, Senior Manager of Social Innovation for Etsy told CNN.
“We see it as an opportunity to drive economic resources to the communities by establishing a direct-to-consumer presence that really can help build a pipeline of long-term economic success for the weavers, their families, and their communities.”
The company provided all of the marketing the weavers need to set up their shops and provided trainers who helped them understand how to build a site and how to manage it effectively with photos and customer service.
The Gullah weavers are the second group Etsy has helped market through online sales. The Gee’s Bend Alabama quilters made $300,000 in sales in the first six months. Their quilts are hand-sewn and considered a crucial contribution to the history of American art, according to Etsy.
“We believe that crafts play an essential role in a community’s economic and social well-being. And in addition, to utilizing that work as a source of income, makers are often holding the history of their regions their communities and their families in their work,” Jean said.
“We’re really excited for the work that they’ve been able to achieve, and we’re excited to incorporate them into the holiday shopping season coming up.”
“For the first time, some of these women are getting recognition that they never had before and just seeing the appreciation,” Cayetano-Jefferson said. “Some of the ladies that come over here are just so excited that people in California are wanting them to weave their baskets and it’s unreal.”
But the beautiful baskets are not without their challenges.
Obstacles have slowed the interest in the craft
The sweetgrass used in the baskets is native to the South, and Cayetano-Jefferson said that the harvest is harder now because some of the areas they have been going to for decades are no longer accessible due to land purchase or development.
“My grandmother would go and pull grass, and we’re still going to the exact same spot, but now, when we get there, there’s a fence up and it’s private property– so we we’re dealing with that here, as far as continuing our craft,” she said.
Vera Mae Manigault, an eighth-generation weaver, mentioned wild animals like snakes and wild boar as a danger to harvesting as well.
Also, similar to her daughter’s feelings about sharing sewing baskets with the next generation, Cayetano-Jefferson said it is losing steam in the community because of the obstacles.
“I feel like the community itself is losing the drive to do it. The drive is lost because of the obstacles that are put on sweetgrass basket weaving. It is the South Carolina state craft, but there are no places for us to go and freely harvest, so the community themselves is losing the drive to be able to get the products,” she said.
Weavers hope recognition will inspire the next generation
Cayetano-Jefferson’s daughter Chelsea Cayetano has shared in the tradition of her family while in college. Cayetano said she hopes the younger Gullah generations would see the items online and get inspired to learn to sew their own baskets.
“I want to show and inform more young women and men that it’s like, cool. It’s not an old lady job and only older ladies do it, and it’s not just for girls either,” she said. “So much more can come out of making the baskets and you meet so many new people and you can even end up traveling because of it, I love that.”
All the women have hope the online platform can show the nation, and the world, the beauty and love poured into every basket made.
“When someone sees our products, I want them to think of how strong our culture is, because there have been so many setbacks,” Cayetano said. “It’s showing how strong our community is, and how even if we do fall down, we get back up and we get ten times better.”