Many of those who stroll the streets of Charleston notice the small lane off Meeting Street between Tradd Street and St. Michael’s Alley with the name Ropemakers. It actually was the site of Charles Snetter’s Rope Manufactory from the 1790’s until 1803. In the era before industrialization and steam power, rope was made by hand along long such “rope walks”. Workers would push an apparatus on wheels that would “lap” the long lengths of hemp and fiber, twisting strands into thick sections of ship rope or fishing net. In this method, the stress on the rope was dispersed evely among the twisted mass of strands, and to create length an mass suitable for hauling sails or ocking ships, workers would walk the equivalent of six or seven miles a day up and down the narrow lane. Much of the raw material used in the colonial period was hemp from the cannabis plant, which is better known as marijuana, and the same stuff they were working on Snetter’s walk was beig smoked in pipes at local taverns. The practice of making rope in this manner faded with steam-powered mechanisms that could do the work faster an more efficiently. Snetter did not live to see the day that his rope work would be made obsolete, and although he died in 1803, Charleston has “knot” forgotten him.
Among the distinctive sounds so fasmiliar to historic Charleston is the short, sharp squeak made by pressing thumbs along stretching palmetto fronds, as sweetgrass basket makers knit creative designs as they have for centuries. Waeving cominations of the aromatic sweetgrass with colorful patterns supplied by bull rush and long-leaf pine requires a binding stitch, and the tradtional binder is the flat, long leaf of the palmetto. Lowcountry families have carried on this ancient art whose genesis was in West Africa, and generations of descendants work meticulously on single baskets for hours, even days, to keep this cultural connection alive. What was once a functional creation meant for holding goods and food is mostly decorative today, but the common thread of ancestral history makes sweetgrass basket weaving much more important than just pleasing the eye. Sweetgrass baskets will never be mass produced, and are one of the most original and timeless forms of South Carolina art work. There is a great deal of skill and affection that goes into each basket, and each new weaving echoes with the sounds of an honored past.