One Mount Pleasant basket maker says the Uplift Makers program inspired her to keep up the art form
Gail Wright, a seventh generation basket maker, is one of 16 women being featured through an Etsy initiative to uplift makers.
The artistry and tradition of sweetgrass basket sewing first traveled to the Lowcountry from West Africa via the Atlantic slave trade. Centuries later, travelers along Highway 17 North between Mount Pleasant and McClellanville stop at makeshift basket stands to buy these artisan-made treasures. Today, baskets painstakingly sewn on the laps of Gullah descendants are just a click away, thanks to a new initiative by Etsy. Travelers of the speediest super highway ever—the Internet—can pull over and purchase an authentic basket, and thus things have traveled full circle, and a craft with roots a continent away has once again gone global.
Best known as an online platform for individual entrepreneurs and creatives selling handmade, vintage, or custom items, Etsy has gone a step further and rolled out an Uplift Makers program under its Etsy Uplift Initiative. “This is part of our long-standing commitment to serve as an on-ramp toward economic security and empowerment for entrepreneurs everywhere,” says Dinah Jean, senior manager for social innovation at Etsy. “The Gullah basket makers emerged as one of the many artisan communities lacking resources to start an online business and benefit fully from the digital economy.”
“The interest from Etsy buyers has been an inspiration for me to keep doing what I do.” —Nicole Williams, sweetgrass basket maker
Not only is Etsy prominently featuring 16 Charleston-area basket makers on the site and promoting them in a video, the platform has invested in ensuring their success. A $75,000 grant helps support basket makers with services such as professional photography, design assistance for their shop page, merchandising mentorship, content creation, and fulfillment assistance.
(Left) Nicole Williams is a left-handed weaver so her rows flow in the opposite direction of most other baskets; (Right) Vanessa Robinson’s elephant basket is for sale on her new Etsy store.
For basket maker Nicole Williams, this new market has been a huge boost. “I had considered selling on Etsy before, but didn’t have a good understanding of how to set up shop, price my items, and package and ship them,” says Williams, a traveling nurse, whose work schedule makes selling at a traditional physical basket stand difficult. “Prior to the launch, my presence on social media was sharing my work with family and friends on Instagram, and only rarely did I make a sale outside of that circle.” After launching her Etsy site in September, Williams sold the majority of her baskets within a week. “I post them right after I’ve finished making them,” she says.
Williams is proud to carry on the time-honored artistry of her Gullah ancestors and is equally comfortable marketing her wares in a 21st-century way. “Social media and Etsy are the only platforms where I sell my work, and I’m okay with that,” she says. “The interest from Etsy buyers has been an inspiration for me to keep doing what I do.”