Sandlapper Society

Sweet Weave

by Dottie Ashley • photos courtesy Sweet Charleston Designs & Jason Zwiker

"In helping others, we shall help ourselves; for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us."– Flora Edwards

This quote expresses why Angie Buxton, the mother of two young children and a medical administrator, stays up late in her Daniel Island home sketching images inspired by sweetgrass baskets that will be transformed into fine keepsake jewelry.

Driven to keep alive the oldest documented African-American art form (brought to our shores by West African slaves), Buxton bases her designs on the baskets woven from the sweetgrass growing along the creeks, rivers and marshes of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor which stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.

Although she loves creating the designs, Buxton's main goal is to honor those African Americans, mainly women, who make and sell sweetgrass baskets for their livelihood.

Her passion came to fruition with the formation of Sweet Charleston Designs, a business founded in 2009 by Buxton and her business partner, Janie Manning.

"I truly believe the Lord had a hand in this," says Buxton, sipping coffee before dashing off to her day job. "Although we are not selling the baskets, we are indirectly promoting them; and, as our business takes off, we plan to benefit the basket weavers in some way."

A North Carolina native, Buxton worked in the pharmaceutical industry for eight years before moving in 2003 to Daniel Island with her two children.

"I had never heard of sweetgrass baskets," says Buxton. "But I learned about them from Penelope West, who was my children's nanny. Penelope was taught to make the baskets by her mother, Louise Jefferson, who still sells them from the market in downtown Charleston."

Buxton got to know the basket weavers on Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant and witnessed how hard they worked, no matter the weather.

Buxton, who enjoyed sketching as a child, recalls, "I studied the styles and patterns of the basket collection of my in-laws, who live in Awendaw. After drawing some images, I created clay and wax models, and after I recieved some assistance from friend Brian Booth, a custom jewelry designer in Raleigh, I sent the models to a jewelry manufacturer."

For artistic advice, Manning contacted internationally known artist Jonathan Green, now living on Daniel Island. Green says, "I love it that the craftsmanship of the sweetgrass baskets has been transferred onto jewelry because this will increase the appreciation of Lowcountry culture and get the word out so that more baskets will be sold."

Most of all, Green says he is impressed that Buxton and Manning plan to help the sweetgrass basket weavers. Already, Sweet Charleston Designs has brought international attention to the weavers. They sent a sweetgrass basket to the U.S. State Department to be given as a diplomatic gift during President Obama's trip to India last fall. The bottom of the large basket was signed by the weavers: Laverne White, Mary Charles White, Tonya White and Kemelar White.

One of the most interesting aspects of this beautiful jewelry is the painstaking process of creating it! From a clay prototype, Buxton transfers the design to metal wiring and manipulates the metal strands using a format similar to that used when working with natural basket materials. The piece is then transferred into a wax model to be used in the casting process which now takes place in a casting house in New York, under contract with Sweet Charleston Designs.

"We oversee and contribute to the entire casting process which utilizes design software to create the desired patterns," explains Buxton.

"Sweet Charleston Designs is active in every step of the process including metal selection, product testing, quality control and the production schedule. Also, we make certain that each of the goldsmiths we use receives hands-on training as to how to insert and then delicately pull a strip of custom-cut gold through the holes in a sterling casting in order to create certain pieces."

Sweet Charleston Designs' sales started in Charleston. Today, their distinctive jewelry is in 25 stores in four states. "So far, we haven't made a dime," says Manning. "But, based on responses, our business should triple in 2011. And, as we grow, we hope to increase global awareness of the baskets and of the craft itself." Sweet Charleston Designs plans to donate a portion of sales to the Beaufort County Open Land Trust to ensure the preservation and planting of sweetgrass in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. 

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