The tradition goes back to the 18th century. These women are struggling to keep it alive through online retailing.

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By Lauren M. Johnson, CNN

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

The only way to purchase one of the exquisite, handcrafted baskets unique to the culture used to be by physically going to the South Carolina markets. The artists relied on tourists to see their pieces, and some of the weavers told CNN that income was not constant.

The tradition dates back to the 18th century when slaves were brought to the United States from West Africa. They were forced to work in rice fields, cotton fields, and indigo plantations along the South Carolina-Georgia coast, where the humid climate and fertile land were very similar to their African homeland.

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 communal bonds and a unique culture that has endured for centuries.

A tradition that has stayed alive for generations to remember where they came from

When the pandemic broke out, Annie Cayetano-Jefferson, a sixth generation Gullah basket weaver, explored how to get her products online in the artisan and maker economy to increase her platform and awareness.

Cayetano-Jefferson said her family has been creating and selling artwork in the City of Charleston Market for more than 35 years, and her family’s unique weaving style has been passed down for generations.

“I’ve been weaving baskets since I was about five or six years old. We still harvest our own materials. We’re still drying it. We do everything from start to finish, ”she said.

“We sell baskets because we want to honor our ancestors and not forget where we came from in the past and what our predecessors paid for us. We only want to use what is already taken for granted. “

For the first time, her job doesn’t rely on tourists

Etsy looked at the work of 16 women and decided to help build stores on their website through its Uplift initiative, which aims to give creative entrepreneurs more economic opportunities.

“We’re really trying to give reputable, but often economically disadvantaged, communities the opportunity to showcase their work and build an online presence,” Dinah Jean, Etsy senior manager of social innovation, told CNN.

“We see it as an opportunity to bring economic resources to communities by building a direct consumer presence that can really help build a pipeline of long-term economic success for the weavers, their families and their communities.”

The company provided all of the marketing the weavers need to set up their stores and provided trainers to help them understand how to create a website and effectively manage it with photos and customer service.

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

“We believe that handicrafts are essential to the economic and social well-being of a community. And in addition to using that work as a source of income, manufacturers often record the history of their region, their communities and their families in their work, ”said Jean.

“We are very excited about the work they have been able to do and we look forward to adding it to the upcoming Christmas shopping season.”

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

But the beautiful baskets are not without their challenges.

Obstacles have slowed down interest in the craft

The sweetgrass used in the baskets is from the south, and Cayetano-Jefferson said harvesting is now tougher because some of the areas they have been going to for decades are inaccessible due to land purchases or development.

“My grandmother would mow grass and we still go to the exact same spot, but now when we get there there is a fence up and it is private property – so this is where we go to continue our trade,” she said.

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

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

“I feel like the community itself is losing its drive to do this. The drive is lost because of the obstacles that are placed in basket weaving of sweet grass. It’s the South Carolina state craft, but there are no places to freely harvest so the community itself is losing the drive to get the products, “she said.

Weber hope the recognition will inspire the next generation

Cayetano-Jefferson’s daughter, Chelsea Cayetano, shared her family tradition while she was a student. Cayetano said she hopes the younger generations of Gullah will see the items online and get inspiration to sew their own baskets.

“I want to show and inform more young women and men that it’s cool. It’s not a job for old women and only older women do it, and it’s not just for girls, ”she said. “So much more can come out of the baskets and you get to know so many new people and you can even travel because I love that.”

All women have the hope that the online platform can show the nation and the world the beauty and love that is poured into every basket.

“When someone sees our products, I want them to think about how strong our culture is because there have been so many setbacks,” said Cayetano. “It shows how strong our community is and how, even if we fall, we get up again and become ten times better.”

The CNN Wire
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