Why do we sell bilums?

We sell bilums to raise money for our projects in the Paigatasa and Gimi communities.

Women from the communities make the bilums for which we pay them the amount they individually set to cover their labour, with one eye also on the price the bilum would fetch in the bilum market in Goroka next to the Bird of Paradise Hotel. We also buy the synthetic yarn that is used in some bilums. The women use the money to pay for fees, uniforms, text books and other things to put their children through school.

By agreement with the women, we then add on an amount with all profits going to health and education projects for the communities. The prices we charge vary with the material used, size and complexity of the design.

We don’t keep any of the money from the bilum sales.

What are bilums?

A traditional fibre bilum

Bilums are over-the-shoulder string bags by made by women in Papua New Guinea using a process called looping, which is similar to crocheting.

Traditionally bilums are made of natural fibres. Grass, leaves, bark, and other plant materials are beaten and scraped till they become fibrous, and then it is left to dry in the sun. Once dried the material is twisted into a long yarn by rolling the fibres with the palm on the thigh. More and more fibre is added to make the string longer. It’s a similar process to spinning wool into yarn but not mechanised.

Mud or crushed flowers and fruits are used to colour the fibres. The yarn is then looped into a variety of patterns with differently sized holes in the final product that allow the bilums to stretch, often to surprising widths. The yarn is also extremely strong. These bilums are often used to carry produce straight from the garden and the holes allow soil to fall out of the bag as it is carried. The colour in these bilums fade with time.

The newer style of synthetic bilum

The process of making the fibre bilums is arduous so it’s not surprising that when manufactured woollen and synthetic yarns became common and affordable, women began to make bilums with these yarns as well. Bilums made from the new yarns are not only quicker and cheaper to make, the range of colours available also gives the maker a rich palette from which to create dazzlingly bags. These are more tightly looped, creating a bag in which the contents inside cannot be seen from outside making them popular as ‘town’ or shopping bags. The synthetic yarn doesn’t shrink so the bilums can be washed over and over. The yarns are also coloured with industrial dyes that don’t fade.

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