Sweetgrass baskets and Gullah culture, an interwoven history 

Students take a Gullah basket weaving class hosted by Andrea Cayetano-Jefferson in the Student Union Tuesday afternoon. The class was organized by UConn Black Students Association President Breanna McFarlane. Photo by Julia Spillane/The Daily Campus.

With strands of sweetgrass and a bent tip weaving tool, Andrea Cayetano-Jefferson spends several hours weaving intricate sweetgrass baskets from the Gullah culture. From Feb. 21-22, the UConn Black Student Association hosted Cayetano-Jefferson and her daughter Chelsea Cayetano to teach students about Gullah culture and the art of sweetgrass basket weaving.  

“Sweetgrass basket weaving is one of the oldest art forms,” Cayetano-Jefferson said. “It was instrumental in helping with rice cultivation down in the South on the plantations.” 

Sweetgrass basket weaving was an art form brought over by enslaved African people from West Africa, according to Cayetano-Jefferson. During enslavement in America, Africans formed the Gullah culture, which spans from the coasts of North Carolina to Florida today. Cayetano-Jefferson’s small business on sweetgrass basket weaving is in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina where her family has continued the tradition for generations. 

“I believe Gullah history is American history. Our ancestors made something out of nothing but still maintained and held on to our African roots. Without Gullah history, it isn’t really Black history or American history.” 

Andrea Cayetano-Jefferson, professional sweetgrass basket weaver.

Cayetano-Jefferson and Cayetano not only taught about sweetgrass basket weaving, but about the foods and languages of Gullah culture. Students had the opportunity to weave their own baskets and engage in a conversation about Gullah history. Students were also given a bag of sweetgrass where they could continue their baskets at home.  

“At first I was like ‘ugh basket weaving,’ but when I came here, she [Cayetano-Jefferson] put an interesting twist on it, showing us the history of where this comes from,” Toyin Ogunbiyi, an eighth-semester psychology major said. “She was showing us how to weave different patterns and I thought it was pretty amazing because for her to do a full basket, it takes about 12 hours.” 

Breanna McFarlane, eighth-semester human development and family sciences and urban community double major and president of BSA, said it was difficult to find professional sweetgrass basket weavers of Gullah descent around the region. However, through research she eventually found Cayetano-Jefferson. McFarlane was happy to see students enjoying themselves while learning about Gullah history and its traditional art during the event.  

“In my sophomore year, I really wanted to learn how to basket weave. When I proposed the idea during a Black History month discussion with other student organizers in the AACC, it sort’ve became a ‘if you want this event to happen you need to take the initiative on it’. So that’s what I decided to do, because I was really interested in basket weaving but no opportunities presented itself at UConn.” 

Breanna McFarlane, eight-semester human development and family sciences and urban community double major and president of BSA.

Students overall expressed enjoyment and appreciation of sweetgrass basket making during the event. Ogunbiyi said he wished there was more time to learn about different patterns, but would use the bowl he made for his jewelry or keys. Shawn Asiahmah, a fourth-semester finance major also said the event was easy and felt comfortable despite how intricate the baskets looked.  

“Everybody was helpful and encouraging,” Asiahma said. “You know you’re not supposed to be a master at this, we’re all still learning here, and I just really like that. I just want to encourage BSA to do these kinds of events longer than just Black History month and feel attuned to a community or a side of UConn that you don’t really get to see on a daily basis.” 

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