Over the last two decades, a Lowcountry tradition has grown into a business. You’ve likely seen baskets and the women who make them, selling the artwork throughout the area. Now their sales are going global.
ABC News 4’s Leah Uko spoke with them about how they went from selling Gullah Geechee baskets in their front yards and marketplaces to now on the internet with the online retail company Etsy.
Uko also shows how the craft was bringing in revenue long before this new deal was sealed.
On a warm, humid afternoon Andrea “Annie” Cayetano-Jefferson swatted a bee flying in front her face while she sat and weaved a basket in her backyard.
“Girl I had to box that bee off the other day!” she laughed.
Cayetano-Jefferson does not embrace everything about The South, but her Gullah Geechee heritage that includes hand weaving baskets is a major exception.
The American craft dates back to the 1700s and is rooted in west African culture.
“We make every single basket that comes out of this house,” Annie showed Uko. “Made by me, my mom, Ms. Vera, my daughter or my mother-in-law.”
Annie is a part of a partnership with 16 Lowcountry basket weavers and the online retail company Etsy, which is partnering with Nest and Bloomberg.
Read More: Weavers harvest sweetgrass in SC Lowcountry
By working with Etsy, the business owners will get to showcase their works to a larger audience all while earning 100% of the sales from their baskets.
It’s a great opportunity daughter Chelsea Cayetano explained would also double the nearly two-day process of making these one-of-a-kind baskets with raw materials that cannot be bought at a store.
“So first, you have to find the place that you need to go to pick out whatever material you’re looking for. So say you’re looking for – we’re going to get sweetgrass. And so you go to your first place that’s an hour to hour and a half out, and now they’re building stuff up on there, you can’t go so now you have to drive some more either up farther from where you live or someplace else,” Chelsea said the work didn’t stop there.
“When you finally find that field, you have to go back and try again tomorrow because it’s so hot," she said. "Who wants to go out in the field and go in the heat?”
An ABC News 4 crew went along with the Cayetano family and their friend Jennifaye Singleton to see what all went into the process.
By hand, the women and men picked palmetto tree branches, sweet grass, long leaf pine needles and bulrush – also known as “Rusha” in their Gullah native language.
“You’ve got to put your back into it,” Annie demonstrated.
This process can take anywhere from four to six hours, but on most days Chelsea said they don’t mind the hustle.
“Just because of, I know like the work that goes into it and I’ve heard what people say about it and how, now I’m accepted for what I do,” she wiped away tears.
“But my momma and my grandma weren’t, so it makes me happy that I can keep on making them proud and showing them that my culture is something to be proud of.”
This craft has passed down six generations in the Cayetano family.
Annie’s grandmother was enslaved at Laura Hill Plantation in Mount Pleasant. Her grandfather was enslaved at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.
“She had a 3rd grade education,” Annie said. “She could barely read or write, but she made some beautiful baskets.”
The skill of basket weaving has always been their livelihood and it pays well.
One of their highest-priced baskets, expected to be sold to a museum, is tagged at $12,000.
“You don’t go in the Louis Vuitton store and ask them for a discount. Mine is handmade. You know who made this,” Annie continued. “Do you know who made that bag? You know how much Jordan’s cost to make? $15.”
In addition to selling baskets around the Lowcountry at markets and festivals, the younger generation is now leaning on the internet to expand.
Renesha Wolfe and her family utilize her website and social media pages to market their work.
The 31-year-old said she had sold and shipped baskets to Canada, Sweden and Guyana.
“I feel like the internet connects me with a lot of people in ways that me sitting outside in the market just wouldn’t be able to do for me.”
Wolfe said Etsy would elevate her business even more.
“They advertised me in a whole new light. Their photo shoots were clean. It was just a new look.”
A challenge both families are facing now is development quickly happening in Charleston.
“I have noticed some of the fields that we used to go to, they’re houses there now,” Annie said. “Or there’s fences up and it’s private property or the grass itself is just dying out.”
Annie hoped, by learning to grow seeds on her own property in Awendaw, her family could continue to create art that would hold onto their South Carolina and ancestral tradition.
“It’s art. It’s art. We put blood, sweat and tears into this," she said.