The tradition dates back to the 1700s. These women fight to keep it alive through online retailing.


By Lauren M. Johnson, CNN

Many African cultures in the United States have struggled to maintain their traditions and unique way of life, and now an online outlet is helping the Gullah community in Charleston, South Carolina use technology to reach a wider audience.

Previously, the only way to buy one of the exquisite, hand-crafted, culturally-specific baskets was to physically visit the South Carolina markets. Artists relied on tourists to come see their work, and some weavers told CNN that earnings were less than stable.

The tradition dates back to the 1700s 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 coastlines of South Carolina and Georgia, where the humid climate and fertile land was very similar to that of their lands. African natives.

After the abolition of slavery, the Gullah community settled in remote villages around the coastal strip, where, thanks to their relative isolation, they formed strong community bonds and a unique culture that endured for centuries. centuries.

A tradition perpetuated for generations to remember where they came from

When the pandemic hit, Annie Cayetano-Jefferson, a sixth-generation Gullah basket maker, explored how to get her products online, and then Etsy, a popular online retailer, stepped in with Nest, a nonprofit that cultivates a responsible growth and a creative engagement of the artisan and maker economy, to elevate their platform and exposure.

Cayetano-Jefferson said his family has been making art and selling it in the Charleston City Market for over 35 years, and their family’s unique weaving style has been passed down from generation to generation.

“I’ve been weaving baskets since I was five or six years old. We always harvest our own materials. We are still drying 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 who came before us paid for us. We just want to take advantage of what is already natural.

For the first time, their work does not rely on tourists

Etsy saw the work of 16 women and decided to help build stores on their website through their Uplift initiative, which aims to provide more economic opportunities for creative entrepreneurs.

“We are really trying to empower renowned, but often economically disenfranchised, communities to help showcase their work and establish an online presence,” Dinah Jean, senior director of social innovation for Etsy.

“We see this as an opportunity to bring economic resources to communities by establishing a direct presence with consumers that can really help create a pipeline of long-term economic success for weavers, their families and their communities. “

The company provided all the marketing weavers need to set up their stores and provided trainers who helped them understand how to set up a site and how to run it effectively with photos and customer service.

The Gullah Weavers are the second group that Etsy has helped market through online sales. Gee’s Bend Alabama quilters made sales of $ 300,000 in the first six months. Their quilts are hand-sewn and considered a crucial contribution to American art history, according to Etsy.

“We believe that craftsmanship plays an essential role in the economic and social well-being of a community. And in addition to using this work as a source of income, decision-makers often take the history of their regions, communities and families into their work, ”said Jean.

“We’re really excited about the job they’ve been able to accomplish and we’re excited to bring them into the holiday shopping season ahead. “

“For the first time, some of these women are getting recognition they’ve never had before and just seeing the appreciation,” Cayetano-Jefferson said. “Some of the women who come here are so horny that people in California want them to weave their baskets and it’s unreal.”

But beautiful baskets are not without challenges.

Obstacles slowed interest in the craft

The sweetgrass used in the baskets is native to the South, and Cayetano-Jefferson said harvesting is more difficult now because some of the areas they have been to for decades are no longer accessible due to purchase or sale. land development.

“My grandmother was going to pull the grass, and we always go to the exact same place, but now when we get there, there’s a fence and it’s private property – so we’re taking care of it here in the measure of as continuing our craft, ”she said.

Vera Mae Manigault, an eighth generation weaver, also mentioned wild animals like snakes and wild boars as a danger to the harvest.

Additionally, similar to her daughter’s feelings about sharing sewing baskets with the next generation, Cayetano-Jefferson said she was losing momentum in the community due to the obstacles.

“I have the impression that the community itself is losing the will to do it. The reader is lost because of the obstacles that are put on the weaving of sweetgrass baskets. It’s the craft of the state of South Carolina, but there are no places to go and harvest freely, so the community itself loses the motivation to be able to get the products, ”he said. she declared.

Weavers hope recognition will inspire the next generation

Cayetano-Jefferson’s daughter, Chelsea Cayetano, shared her family’s tradition while studying at university. Cayetano said she hopes Gullah’s younger generations will see the items online and be inspired to learn how to sew their own baskets.

“I want to show and inform more young women and men that it’s cool. It’s not old lady’s job and only older women do it, and it’s not just for girls either, ”she said. “Basket making can do a lot more and you meet so many new people and you can even end up traveling because of it, I love it.”

All the women are hoping that 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 about the strength of our culture, because there have been so many setbacks,” Cayetano said. “It shows how strong our community is and how even if we fall, we get up and improve tenfold.”

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