A Story of Diversity: Bilum Across Cultures

For a seasoned traveler who has browsed handwoven goods in the markets of northern Thailand or the colorful bazaars of the Middle East, Bilum may not stand out at first glance. The looped weaving pattern is not technically complex and the colors of locally made bags are remarkably simple. What, then, makes Bilum so special? 

Interview with Sharleen Gawi: Significance of Bilum in PNG culture (2018)Asia Foundation

Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum’s essence and its significance have never been about showiness or technical proficiency.

Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum bags aren’t merely products to be used and sold.

Bilum from Goroka Bilum from Goroka (2018)Asia Foundation

They represent a connection to the womb, to the viscera within each person who weaves or carries one. They’re also deeply personal.

Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Although bilum weaving is practiced in all regions of Papua New Guinea, no weaving style or philosophy is the same.

Natural fiber Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Weavers use whatever bilum fibers grow near their villages, accenting them with locally sourced materials such as animal furs and tails and dyes made with flowers indigenous to their region.

Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

At the Goroka Show

At the world-famous Goroka Show, attendees will witness how Bilum is used in hundreds of tribes across Papua New Guinea. The wide spectrum of colors, patterns, and techniques on display tell the remarkable story of diversity woven intricately through Papua New Guinea's culture, people and lands. 

Bilum at the 2018 PNG Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Women in BIlum (2018)Asia Foundation

Even among small tribes, each bilum bag is unique. Women imbue their bilum works with their own stories and philosophies, building on the skills they learned from their mothers and grandmothers yet making the bags their own.

Bilum from Popondetta Bilum from Popondetta (2018)Asia Foundation

Every time a woman begins a new bilum bag, she must imagine the pattern before she weaves it.

Bilum from Sepik Bilum from Sepik (2018)Asia Foundation

She does not work off a template or copy another weaver’s design, but rather envisions the pattern she will create and then allows her fingers to translate that vision into the bag she weaves.

Women in Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

The threads that comprise a bilum bag tie the owner quite literally to the person who made it.

Ceremonial Bilum from Mount Hagen, PNG (2018)Asia Foundation

When a woman weaves a bilum bag, she begins by working the fibers against her own thigh.

The fibers are harsh, tough, as they twist against her skin. Tiny hairs from her leg may get caught in the fibers, and they remain as she weaves the strands into the iconic sack.

Ceremonial Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

In this way, the weaver quite literally leaves a piece of herself in each bag she makes.

Ceremonial Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

Women are both the weavers and wearers of bilum, but the bags hold deep significance for men, too.

Tribal Man carrying Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

Traditionally, men wear large bilum bags slung across their bodies though these days some wear smaller bags hung around their necks.

Bilum from Goroka Bilum from Goroka (2018)Asia Foundation

Even small children are touched by the tradition, as mothers will sling a bilum strap over their heads and carry their babies in the womb-like sacks. Once they’ve reached their destinations, they will hang up the bag, still containing the baby, allowing the child to rest as they did when still in the womb.

Bilum from Bena Village Bilum from Bena Village (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum is woven into every Papua New Guinean’s lifecycle, holding them close after birth and growing with them as a skill, a memento, a tool, and a tradition.

Tribal Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

The symbolism of the bilum, however, is as diverse as Papua New Guinea’s many unique tribes.

Decorative Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

By one tribe’s lights, the local fibers used in the bilum sacks that hold and rock them as children are said to root them in the land of their ancestors, their families.

For those who become farmers, this is an early grounding in the earth they will work as adults, where they will plant the seeds for the generations that will come after them.

Ceremonial Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

In another village, the terms “big bilum man” and “big bilum woman” are used to convey honor and respect for important figures within the community. Though bilum bags are largely created by women, there are places where men take a more active role in selecting the materials and spinning the fibers for their sacks.

Bilum from Popondetta Bilum from Popondetta (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum weaving styles vary not just among villages and weavers but by gender as well. Some communities favor sacks with large, loose loops for women and tighter weaves for men. This is deliberate, as the larger loops allow for visibility into what the woman is carrying, and the contents of her bilum may reflect status- and identity-signaling attributes such as children, produce, and goods for the home. What she carries in her bilum tells the story of who she is as a matriarch and mother and signals her place in the vast constellation of her family’s ancestral history.

Ceremonial Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

A man’s bilum tells his story, too. One tribe uses bilum to indicate a man’s prowess as a provider and hunter and his status within the community through the application of different types of bird feathers.

Natural Fiber Bilum at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation

Some use bilum bags in tribal rituals signifying a boy’s passage into manhood.

Bilum from Sepik Bilum from Sepik (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum serves as a connection to ancestors who have passed on as well as a force for spiritual connection. The bags may hold the bones of revered elders, and bilum has been used as both protective material against the supernatural and as a means of connecting with those forces.

Ceremonial Bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

In death as in birth, bilum plays an integral role for the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Interpretations vary among communities, but some believe that the souls of the recently deceased live on in the bilum of a woman close to them while others believe a person is spiritually reborn through bilum.

Bilum from Popondetta Bilum from Popondetta (2018)Asia Foundation

There is no time in a Papua New Guinean’s life when bilum does not hold, protect, and support them.

Credits: Story

Created by:
TÁPI Story

Images + Sound:
Ái Vuong
Samuel Díaz Fernández

Casey Hynes

Field Producers:
Gobie Rajalingam
Benjamin Lokshin

Special thank to Florence Kamel, Gilda Lasibori, Sharlene Gawi, and the women of Bena Bena Village

Executive Producer: John Karr

Commissioned by:
The Asia Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps