Just north of Charleston, South Carolina, is Mount Pleasant, a sprawling suburb filled with cookie-cutter residential developments and run-of-the-mill strip malls. At first glance, it’s not a place that seems to have anything to do with handcrafts and centuries-old design traditions, but behind the bland facades lies the center of the Gullah sweetgrass basketmaking community. Gullah people are descended from Africans enslaved on the southeastern United States coast, and the region’s relative geographic isolation has meant that the area has been able to preserve a distinct culture and language. Collectors often venture there in search of the baskets, which stem from a sewing culture developed on nearby plantations, with roots in West African traditions.
For decades, a stretch of the town’s main drag, Highway 17, served as a sales point for local makers. Stalls used to line the route, but as the area grew in population, the road went from two lanes to six, edging out roadside shops. Development hasn’t only thwarted designers’ ability to easily reach their customers; it has also limited access to wetlands and materials like bulrush, pine needles, and palmetto, which are vital to basketmaking.
"Many basketmakers are either too old or the distance to resources is too far, and they don’t have transportation to get there," says fourth-generation sewer and unofficial community leader Henrietta Snype. "The people who used to harvest the material have died."
The challenges are at odds with a broader resurgence of interest in American traditional crafts. Over the past two decades, independent designers and entrepreneurs have reemployed vintage hand techniques to make small-batch or one-off items that are more reflective of individual creativity than machine-made products. The trend has touched everything from kitchen accessories to furniture and even food.
For many reviving these artisanal cottage industries—often white middle- or upper-class makers—the crafts are a side hustle that don’t weigh heavily on their financial security. This has set the precedent that craft objects, regardless of how difficult they are to make, can be sold cheaply, an expectation that can stymie less affluent Black and Indigenous artisans, especially. Even when outsiders do value works from those groups, they often have exploited those communities.
Gullah sweetgrass baskets are expensive, and customers don’t always understand why. They can cost anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars, depending on their size and level of detail.
"A remnant of us are still handing this down from generation to generation. My daughter, she knows how to do it. My son does, too. I’m teaching my granddaughter. She’s only two."
—Nakia Wigfall, basketmaker
"My pieces are collector’s items," says Nakia Wigfall, another sweetgrass basket sewer. "Those baskets are expensive. As they should be." For most of Wigfall’s career, she worked several different jobs, including at a craft store, to sustain her practice, because she was unable to sell her pieces for a fair amount. A basket may take months to make, and the labor required is complex. Sewers use palmetto fronds to secure sweetgrass coils together and build the basic shape, which varies according to the design. Pine needles are used to give the baskets color variation, and bulrush provides strength.
The baskets require skilled, specific hand techniques that not just anyone can pick up and replicate—though people try. "A lot of folks have been trying to pass off baskets [as Gullah]," Wigfall says. Ensuring that the works are sold for the right price is an ongoing struggle, and as other communities have found, the road to establishing a sustainable market is not always straightforward.
A two-hour drive southwest of Montgomery, Alabama, is a rural hamlet named Boykin, otherwise known as Gee’s Bend. The entry to the village, population just over 200, is marked by signs depicting the quilts that have made it famous.
The area’s name derives from the actual bend in the Alabama River, which surrounds the town, and the Gee family, which established a cotton plantation here with enslaved people in 1816. Many of today’s residents still carry the last name of the plantation’s second owner, Mark H. Pettway. Quilting with worn-out clothes and leftover cotton became a common practice among women forced to work on the plantation—a way to stay warm on cold nights—and their abstract compositions created a distinct patchwork aesthetic that remains synonymous with the community.
"The challenges are at odds with a broader resurgence of interest in American traditional crafts."
Gee’s Bend designs gained national recognition among the American folk art community thanks to initiatives like the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative formed by local quilters in 1966 on the heels of the civil rights movement to provide the community with a much-needed economic boost. In the ’60s and ’70s, quilters made objects for retailers like Bloomingdale’s and Sears.
William Arnett, an Atlanta-based collector of Black southern art, came into the picture in the late 1990s. He advocated treating the practice as a fine art and helped organize The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2002. The show was subsequently mounted at 12 other institutions throughout the country and garnered renewed attention for the community. "We didn’t know we could get our quilts shown in places like they have been," says contemporary designer Tinnie Pettway, who, with her daughter Claudia Pettway Charley, runs the That’s Sew Gee’s Bend online business. "[Without Arnett] we wouldn’t have known to seek other places that would appreciate the work the way we did. We hadn’t been exposed to that before."
But the added spotlight didn’t always translate into more money for the quilters. In 2007, two makers filed a lawsuit claiming that Arnett had improperly kept thousands of dollars raised from selling their designs. The cases were ultimately resolved out of court, but for many of the makers, the period remains a complicated time. Yes, Arnett helped bring recognition to their practice and creative prowess, but many feel he also took advantage of the community.
"It’s sometimes detrimental to categorize such works as fine art," says Glenn Adamson, a curator and the author of Craft: An American History. "It can introduce a set of expectations that are hard to sustain. Striking a balance between typicality and exceptionality is difficult."
Arnett died in 2020, but other outsiders with different strategies have recently come to town. Nest, a New York–based nonprofit that aids craft communities around the world, in part by helping them set up sustainable business models, started working in Gee’s Bend in the late 2010s.
"Some of the quilters were earning revenue through licensing and royalties but not necessarily the sales from new quilts," says Nest founder Rebecca van Bergen, "so our strategy was to help encourage more retail outlets for new quilts. We established direct-to-consumer e-commerce platforms and have supported brand and design collaborations where the quilters are collaborating on the production of new pieces. E-commerce was established in response to the community’s request, and we partnered with Etsy to support the entrepreneurial model the women were used to working with." The company helped makers with product photography and with establishing their own Etsy stores, where pieces regularly sell for upward of $5,000.
Now, "we’re able to control the dynamic of our shops and set our own prices," says Pettway Charley, who serves as the Gee’s Bend community manager for Nest. By translating the Gee’s Bend aesthetic into things like bags and home accessories, she and her mother and other local quilters have adapted to new market demands and made the designs accessible to a wider consumer base. Wallets go for $20, while a bath mat can fetch $50.
Nest has been active in Mount Pleasant, too. It has helped to get Etsy to waive its transaction fees for Gullah sewers and Gee’s Bend quilters new to the platform. On Etsy, these new shop owners were able to set their own prices and pace of production without the pressure traditional retailers apply. Van Bergen and her team also helped Gee’s Bend makers establish ongoing contracts with fashion designers like Greg Lauren and French house Chloé; this summer, all of the quilters quoted in this article were busy developing a project for the latter. "We’re working with fabrics like silk that we’ve never used before," Tinnie Pettway says. "It’s challenging but a good learning experience." Stella Mae Pettway, who runs Georgie’s Way Quilts, adds that these assignments might take up a lot of their time, but the work leaves her with enough hours to develop original, artistic pieces.
For many reviving these artisanal cottage industries—often white, middle- or upper-class makers—the crafts are a side hustle that don’t weigh heavily on their financial security.
Another quilter and relative of Tinnie and Claudia, Loretta Pettway Bennett, lives in Huntsville but travels to "the Bend" for such collaborations. Because of the newfound financial success these projects have afforded her, she, like many other quilters, feels able to pursue creative projects. "The younger generation, anyone below my age and younger, just wasn’t making quilts anymore," Bennett, who is in her 60s, says. "But now, since we’re making more money, they’re interested in carrying on the legacy again." Pettway Charley’s daughter, Francesca, is one such example; though currently studying anthropology in college, she’s already getting involved.
Keeping the next generation interested in these traditions and businesses isn’t just a financial matter. For many young Gullah people, picking up the sweetgrass sewing practice is a way to stay connected with their heritage. "They’re becoming more and more aware and want to be more involved in the culture," Wigfall says.
On visits to West Africa, she’s seen parallels between the techniques passed down to her and those used by artisans there. "My dream would be to sit down with basketmakers from Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Ghana and just create our baskets," she says, "swapping them off to each other and seeing what the outcomes could be."
"For me—and a lot of the women would tell you the same—quilting is therapy. You get to not worry about what’s going on in the outside world."
—Loretta Pettway Bennett, quilter
Still farther west, the Santa Fe Indian Market demonstrates an example of what other communities are striving for—a stable and fair market for their goods—though it has challenges of its own.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this August, the annual market is the largest juried Native American art show in the world. It’s a cultural and commercial hub for many Indigenous peoples across the continent. Transforming the central plaza and surrounding streets of New Mexico’s capital into an open souk of sorts, the market—organized by the Southwestern Association of American Indian Art (SWAIA)—plays host to 100,000 visitors over the course of three days, dwarfing the city’s permanent population of 84,000. According to its former executive director, Kim Peone, who is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, many of the craftspeople in the show do all of their business here.
Turquoise jewelry, pottery, and silverwork, as well as drawing, painting, and other art forms, are abundant throughout the stalls. As at Art Basel, collectors compete to snatch up pieces early on—some even spend the night sleeping at artists’ booths before the market officially opens and argue over who has first dibs. The city’s streets are filled with hurried buyers seeking to make their first purchases or grow established collections. Prices can reach $700 for silver brooches and $10,000 for paintings. As part of the official market and surrounding it, there are fashion shows, a gala, live performances, and panel discussions. But the SWAIA Best of Show ceremony is the highlight. It builds collector buzz, and the top prize at this summer’s event came with a $30,000 award.
Much like the framing of Santa Fe as a tourist destination by travel industry businessmen for those going out west in the 1850s to experience an idealized version of the Native American culture for a day or two, the market has exploitative roots. "It was established through an anthropological and patriarchal system," explains Peone. "Native Americans weren’t even invited to sell their own work until 1938. The perspective one hundred years ago was ‘They’re going to be extinct, so let’s collect their wares.’ " Over the following decades, the event was rightfully claimed by Indigenous artists. Peone took on her role in April 2020, and her predominantly Indigenous team was forged around the same time.
"Quality, transparency, accountability standards, and innovation are the focus for SWAIA," says Jamie Schulze, the organization’s director of operations and a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate nations. The pandemic exposed new issues surrounding the limited access many designers have to e-commerce and digital tools. In response, Schulze hopes to expand the market’s reach and build SWAIA’s web presence. "Digital spaces are vital to economic growth for Indigenous artists," Schulze says.
Another part of SWAIA’s mandate is to keep the market aligned with the values of broader Indigenous communities. "When you look at demographics, you see younger talents carrying the baton into the future," Peone says. "The value system changes with each generation. I feel that it’s our responsibility, as well as that of the artists, collectors, and members, to identify what these shifts are and how we can respond in a productive way."
At this year’s Best of Show ceremony, Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero won the Best of Class award for Paintings, Drawings, Graphics & Photography and in her acceptance speech said: "We’re not interested in a postapocalyptic mindset, as we’ve already experienced our apocalypse." Her piece, The Zenith, depicting an astronaut surrounded by flying white corn, "address[es] the futurity of our precious foodways."
The works shown at the market must still adhere to strict categorical and authenticity criteria. They must fit into one of the allowed product categories (textiles, basketry, Pueblo wooden carvings, pottery, bead- and quillwork, diverse arts, jewelry, and sculpture) and be produced by people enrolled in one of the tribes recognized by the U.S. or Canadian government.
Potter and interdisciplinary Cochiti Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz says the market’s rules are not always respected. The designer started going to the market as a kid in the ’70s, when his family had a booth. "It’s growing big, and I’m all for it because I don’t want to hold anybody back. I want people to do what they want and how they want to do it. But it’s supposed to be all handmade traditional materials," he says. Ortiz is by no means a traditionalist—his ongoing Revolt 1680/2180 project constructs a futurist narrative across various pieces—but sees history as being at stake. "Even though I work with high-fire ceramic glass [in my broader practice], at my Indian Market booth, I stick to the regulations of using traditional methods and materials because that’s the only thing I’m approved to have there," he says. "I think it should be more restrictive, just remembering how it used to be."
"We are always focused on long-term sustainability as well as ensuring that our efforts are locally designed and led," the Nest’s van Bergen says. "In all of these communities, it comes down to rebuilding trust after decades of exploitation. Trust is not always something that comes readily, for good reason, and we know we need to prove that we are in it for the long term and that our goal is to help them practice their unique trades while also bringing home profits."
It remains to be seen whether new outsiders will sustain these communities or create new challenges to be overcome. Whatever happens, these designers will be moving their craft traditions forward.
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