Sweetgrass basket making a proud tradition for Daurus Niles.
Story by Amy Coyne Bredeson + Photos by Lloyd Wainscott
As a young girl, Daurus Niles and her siblings were expected to work on sweetgrass baskets before they could play outside on Sundays.
After church, the family would gather under a large oak tree outside their Charleston home. Niles would weave baskets right alongside her grandmother, great-grandmother and other family members, while singing old spirituals.
Sweetgrass basketry was a source of income for the family, but more importantly, an art form connecting the Gullah family to their West African ancestors.
On the plantations of the Lowcountry, enslaved Africans used the baskets to separate the chaff from rice, a process known as winnowing. They also used the baskets to store vegetables, shellfish and cotton.
“For me, it’s a proud tradition,” Niles said. “It’s lasted over 400 years, and it’s one of the oldest art forms that’s still being taught today. It makes me proud because a lot of art forms are dying.”
Niles, now 59 and a Summerville resident, is the only one of five children to carry on the tradition in her family. After years of working as a hairstylist, owning a salon, teaching cosmetology and working as a CNC operator, Niles returned to her roots.
Because the materials used to make sweetgrass baskets are from local swamps and marshes, water will not hurt them. Carefully wash with soap and water, then rinse thoroughly with cold water and air dry. A basket’s value increases with age, and with proper care, will last indefinitely. Some locally made baskets are well over a century old.
About 10 years ago, after getting injured on the job, Niles decided to try her hand at full-time basketry. She started out working with her cousin, Michael Smalls. The two began teaching basketry classes at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. She still teaches classes on Saturday at the museum, but she now works with another basket maker, Angela Coakley.
Niles is known as The Gullah Dream Weaver, and her baskets are on display at the local museum, at the McKissick Museum in Columbia and in a traveling exhibit through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. They can be purchased at the museum, at Pluff Mud Gallery in Bluffton and at the Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum.
Niles said there aren’t many people left who make sweetgrass baskets, she thinks fewer than 200 people. Most live in the Charleston area.
Niles would love to get a grant to be able to teach basket weaving in the schools.
“I think it’s important that we keep the history alive because it’s vital to South Carolina,” Niles said.
Niles taught her three daughters the craft, but they haven’t shown much interest in it just yet. She also has two grandsons, ages 1 and 3, who might carry on the tradition one day.
“I’ll lay the foundation for them,” Niles said. “And it’s up to them whether they want to do it or not. I think it will stay around for a while. And I think if people support the arts, that will make it stay.”
Niles said some people complain about the baskets being too expensive, but it takes a lot of work to make just one basket.
First of all, someone who wants to make a basket can’t just go to Michael’s and buy the materials. Only approved basket weavers are allowed to harvest sweetgrass and only in June, July and August. They have to harvest enough material to last the entire year.
Secondly, the craft of weaving sweetgrass baskets is not easy. Niles said only some people have the gift, and even if they do, it takes practice and a time commitment. It can also be painful for the fingers, even for seasoned basket makers like Niles.
“That’s why they’re expensive,” Niles said. “They leave (the class) with a greater appreciation of the baskets. … After class, they’ll say, ‘I understand now.’”
Niles learned a lot from having to weave baskets starting at such a young age. She learned about her family’s heritage. She learned the value of hard work. She also learned how to take care of herself. The skills she gained as a child have given her a successful business as an adult. And she gets to do what she loves.
“Who would’ve thought you could take materials from the earth and make art that’s displayed all over the world?” Niles said. “We started out doing this as a way of life, and it’s still a way of life, and now we’re being displayed at the Smithsonian Museum and the White House.”