Rooted in generations of family, Lynette Youson carries on a treasured tradition

USACE Charleston District
Published Sept. 21, 2022
Lynette Youson, Sweetgrass Basket Maker

Lynette Youson, Sweetgrass Basket Maker

We all have family traditions we want to pass on to the next generation because it keeps our family’s past alive. These traditions become storytellers and allow us to share our culture and beliefs. They help our children gain knowledge of their heritage; letting them live it, preserve it and enrich it.

When you think back to your childhood, what memories do you cherish?  For Lynette Youson, that is easy. Youson remembers being five years old and sitting for hours with her great-grandmother, learning the art of basket weaving.

Youson is a very accomplished sweetgrass basket artisan, with her work being displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. She has spent her entire life dedicated to this unique art form which dates to the 1700s and is one of the country’s oldest Western African art forms. When enslaved people were brought to South Carolina, they brought the tradition of weaving baskets from sweetgrass with them.

These baskets are weaved differently than most because they are made in the West African tradition of coiling, not twisting or plaiting, which is more typical in other parts of the world. Dried sweetgrass is bundled together and coiled in circles. Often, bulrush, pine and palmetto fronds are added to the mix as seen in Youson’s Gullah Rice Fanner basket, one of her most famous pieces. The baskets were originally designed as a tool to help the slaves collect rice before the tradition evolved into a nationally recognized art form.

Another piece she is extremely proud of now hangs in her son’s home. She created a unique design for a cross that was carried in former President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.

“Being asked to create a cross with such deep-rooted ties to our African American ancestors for the country’s first black president was a tremendous honor,” said Youson.

Youson has been weaving with her mother, Marilyn, for over 50 years and has learned a great deal from her over the years, as she has perfected her own technique. Her daughters, LaNeikqua and Kimberly, and granddaughters, Mi’Ryell and Allace, are also weavers.

“It is a way of transferring our culture from one generation to the next,” says Youson. “It helps give meaning to our history and preserve our cultural identity. When we teach children about our past, we make a connection to our ancestors.”

She has taught members of her own family this art form and hundreds of others, from kindergarten to seventy-year-olds, in after-school programs and adult weaving classes. She has traveled all over the country to save this art form from dying.

She often fears technology may be endangering the basket weaving tradition. Youson worries that young people spend so much time on screens and won’t spend the time required to perfect the technique. Yet, when she starts to worry about the potential loss of the art form, a young person will contact her with keen interest, relieving her concerns.

Youson partnered with the Corps over 10 years ago while we looked for someone with her expertise to advise us about the naturally growing sweetgrass discovered at the Cooper River Rediversion Project in St. Stephen, SC. 

Soon after the partnership began, an annual “Sweetgrass Pulling” day was created, allowing weavers to come and pull sweetgrass, a resource that has become increasingly more difficult to find, for no charge. Coastal development has dramatically hampered the supply.

“The grass at the CRRP is very fine, which is great for the intricate details the weavers often use on their baskets,” according to Youson. “The sweetgrass community gets excited every time they have an opportunity to get some of the grass from that property. Being able to provide the weavers with a fantastic grass source has been one of the best things about my partnership with the Corps. I look forward to continuing to spearhead this win-win for the community and the district.”  

Summer pulls are scheduled for July 15 and later in August.

If you are interested in learning more about sweetgrass, consider attending the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival, which takes place every summer at the Sweetgrass Pavilion in Mount Pleasant. Youson is a past chairman of this cultural event.

Sweetgrass basket weaving is embedded in Youson’s DNA. Once she begins weaving, she enters her “own” world where she has nothing to worry about and a sense of calm and peace overtake her. What more could you ask for from a tradition you love?