What are Bilums?
Bilums are beautiful, traditional, intricately-woven bags, made by women throughout Papua New Guinea. The bilum technique of twisting and looping string in a rhythmical movement has been passed down through the generations. The process could almost be described as stitching, but in Papua New Guinea it is known by all as ‘bilum.’
How are they made?
Heritage bilums are made from a variety of foraged fibrous tissues such as those of the Tulip Tree and the Pandanus Palm. The fibres are twisted into string and often dyed by hand.
This labour-intensive process is carried out to create bilums for cultural rituals and tribal exchanges. To save time and to increase their rate of production, PNG women have turned to man-made yarn that is available in a myriad of colours, rather than using the tree fibres. This has made a huge impact on their appearance, bringing a distinctly contemporary aesthetic to them.
What is the symbolism of the patterns?
The intricate and unique patterns are integral to bilums, and many are particular to specific communities. The patterns record and demonstrate provenance, current events and familial stories and often have spiritual or symbolic significance. There are some modern patterns and designs: the AK47, as its name suggests, reflects the violent nature of tribal warfare, soccer ball patterns and even noodles.
We work with three women led cooperatives in PNG— Jaukae Bilum Products, Gifted Hands and Singu Arts.
Jaukae Bilum Products is run by Bilum Artist Florence Jaukae Kamel from Goroka in the Eastern Highlands of PNG. Florence has been instrumental in promoting her craft to the world and wears many hats. She is the founder, Managing Director & Principal Artist of her business Jaukae Bilum Products and established the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative in an effort to assist women in her community who were less fortunate than herself. The co-operative now has over fifty artisans, many with health issues such as HIV, are homeless or have fled domestic violence. By commercialising this ancient craft, weavers are able to support themselves and their children and in turn, benefit the wider community. Florance has held an elected position as a local Government Councilor and has long been an advocate for women’s rights.
“As a women’s leader in a male-dominated area, I have advocated strongly to reduce poverty, empower women, promote gender equity and stop violence against women. Through bilum, I feel that I making a difference by helping women support themselves,”
If that is not enough, Florence is also responsible for the annual Goroka Bilum Festival that brings a cast of thousands to what is now one of the worlds largest tribal gatherings.
We also work with Gifted Hands cooperative set deep in the mountainous highlands of Papua New Guinea, in Chimbu Province. Established by Fransisca Moiwo in 2014, Gifted Hands is a women-run not-for-profit cooperative, that harnesses the ancient cultural practice of bilum weaving to support the economic independence of the women of Chimbu, and specialises in traditional Karamui bilums.
Singu Arts is based in Wewak in the heart of the Sepik River. Run by Lina Singu- this collective harnesses the collective work from over 700 weavers who are situated all the way along the river. Traditional Gumba fibre bilums are made here, and natural dyes include mud, charcoal and dyes from plants. Lina spends a great deal of time teaching weaving to women in the remote Lower Sepik villages of Kampot and Chimodo.
Purchasing from One of Twelve
When you purchase bilum bags through One of Twelve, you will receive an authenticity card detailing the maker, co-op province, fibre material used and the date it was made.
You will be buying a handmade work of art and making a difference in the life of the maker, her family and community.
It is our belief that these utilitarian bags are works of art in their own right and we are delighted to be able to share them with you.