On a bright day in March, when I finally shed my winter jacket and the soft fresh air carried the promise of spring, I went to Hilton Head's Coastal Discovery Museum to meet Daurus Niles, a sweetgrass basket weaver who has been at Honey Horn for four years offering demonstrations, teaching classes and displaying her award winning work.
Striding up the gravel path, I saw a small crowd gathered in the distance. Seated in the shade of a huge live oak, a man and a woman-serene even at a distance-appeared so effortlessly anchored to the landscape they might have been seated there for centuries. The woman waved me over. Daurus Niles introduced me to her cousin Michael Smalls. They are 7th generation sweet grass basket workers. They learned to "sew" (Daurus' term) from their grandmother. Daurus and Michael are youthful and thoroughly modern, but over 300 years of Gullah ancestry is clearly woven into their spirits and their work.
In person Daurus (pronounced Doris) personifies the vivid beauty and abundance of Mother Nature herself. She has a wide Pink headband that holds back a nimbus of wild black hair. She has decked herself in round, coaster-size sweetgrass earrings and a pendant sweetgrass necklace embellished with cowrie shells. She wears rings of bone and more shells. She has intelligent eyes, full of humor, and a strong, expressive face. Her hands are a work of art. I make her stop talking and hold out her long sculpted fingers so I can see her perfect, really long pink lacquered fingernails. In response to my incredulous question about how she does handwork with "those nails" she deadpans, "They're very useful." She is animated and fun while exuding a deep imperturbable calm.
Daurus says there are about 200 traditional sweetgrass basket weavers, almost all originating in the Mt. Pleasant/Charleston area. Gullah ancestors came from Sierra Leone through Sullivan's Island (at the entrance of Charleston Harbor), the point of entry for nearly 40 percent of all enslaved Africans into North America. By the 1700s rice was the primary crop of the Lowcountry. There was a high demand for slave labor from West Africa's "rice coast" because they had the skills for rice cultivation and coastal irrigation.
They were also skilled in weaving coiled baskets, central to the storing, carrying and winnowing of rice, as well as other vegetables and crops. Traditionally the baskets were made of sturdy bulrush. Wide, shallow trays called rice fanners held the threshed and pounded grains, and were thrown up in the air to let the wind blow away the chaff. In Africa, basket weaving was a male occupation. The traditional tool, a nailbone was made from the sharpened rib of a cow or pig.
In America, the nailbone evolved to a flattened nail, and finally to a spoon handle in which the cut side is sharpened to a point. Women began to make baskets. This spoon tool, still called a nailbone, and dollar store scissors are the only utensils Daurus and her fellow weavers use today. (Of course Daurus has her fingernails) Traditional bulrush was still used, but it was hard on the hands and difficult to bind. By the 20th century weavers were using materials indigenous to the Lowcountry. Strips of palmetto leaves (mada) were used to bind the coils. Long leaf pine (which can be dyed colors) and sweetgrass-a plant grown near ocean dunes and tidal marshes that smells sweet, like freshly mown hay-offered greater flexibility and decorative options that turned sweetgrass basket weaving into an artform.
Daurus makes a traditional rice fanner that is 22" wide by 6" deep. She is quick to tell me there are no patterns, consequently no two baskets are ever alike. Each weaver has a unique style that can be identified by other master weavers. She has no guide other than tradition fused with her imagination. She tells me her style is "simple and elegant." She has done whole weddings with woven flowers, including the bridal and bridesmaids' bouquets. She has pieces at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
Daurus is mesmerizing. I want to spend more time with her. I make a rash and improbable decision. I sign up for her "Sweetgrass basket weaving class". I arrive promptly at 10:30 the next morning and sit with seven distressingly skilled and "artsy/craftsy" women. Daurus, dazzling in lime green and again be-decked in her own creations, gives each of us a "starter", the foundation for our "project." She gives a short talk, a demonstration and individual guidance. Around me seven women bow industriously to their work. Slowly, their fingers quit fumbling. Daurus corrects a stitch, guides a nailbone, adds new grass. Hesitantly, rows of new coils, then patterns, then baskets build around me. I'm not one-fourth way around my first coil. Daurus , with the patience only acquired by nearly a half century of basket "sewing", sits with me. I assure her I've got it now. I make four halting stitches and am vigorously congratulated by my generous compatriots. Then I somehow pull the binding piece too hard and all my freshly coiled grass falls to the floor.
I'm happy to just sit and watch Daurus work. I love women's hands. I particularly love her hands. Their movement is a choreographed meditation. I watch. She weaves me into another time and place. I am lulled and soothed by women's laughter, by the cooperative energy of purposeful creativity, by the economy and mastery of Daurus' quiet hands. She is weaving 300 years of tradition into something original and durable; she is binding a heritage and community. I watch while her hands transcend time or place. Like a dream.
89 yr. old father: is the last descendant from the Cherokee Plantation on the Combahee River in Yemassee, SC. In 1860 the plantation had 559 slaves. It is now an exclusive, private club.
Childhood: at 5- or 6-years-old growing up in Charleston, she learned to gather pine and let it soak and make four "starters" or small coiled bottoms before she could go play.
Motherhood: Daurus has three daughters-ages 35, 30 and 28. They all learned to weave.
Higher education: Daurus now attends Springfield College in Charleston full-time. She wants to be a Human Services Advocate for the Elderly.
Basket care: Daurus says it's perfectly safe to wash these baskets in warm, soapy water and let them air dry
*Dream Weaver: Songs & lyrics by Gary Wright
For information about "Sweetgrass Basket Weaving Classes" at Coastal Discovery Museum call: 843-689-6767 ext. 223