A Story of Making: Bilum as Inherited Craft

For many women in Papua New Guinea, bilum weaving is just one of many tasks they engage in each day.

Woman Weaving Bilum in a Village in Papua New Guinea (2018)Asia Foundation

The Women (2018)Asia Foundation

Weaving Together

Women may be running a small business, farming, or doing some other kind of income-generating activity. They weave when they have a few spare moments or when rain drives them inside.

Otupaue Peiyo, woman weaver of Bena Village (2018)Asia Foundation

There they sit in small clusters, women weaving side by side. If one imagines the conversations they might have while they work – comments about their spouses and their children, concerns about their aging parents, worries about money, the moments they’ve witnessed and thoughts they’ve pondered throughout the day – the artistic and emotional value of each bilum bag becomes clearer.

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

While synthetic bilum bags may appear more fashionable thanks to their brighter, more interesting colors, the more muted tones of the handcrafted varieties belie the rich, deeply human stories woven into each one.

Making: Cutting of the tree (2018)Asia Foundation

In Search of Bilum

The journey of each bilum bag begins with the cutting down of a local tree. This one starts in Bena. 

Making: Traveling back to the village (2018)Asia Foundation

The tree is carried back to the village, where bilum makers strip it of its outer skin and then remove the bark from the stem.

Making: Removing the bark (2018)Asia Foundation

Once the bark is removed, the weaver will beat it down until its flat and lie it out on a mat to try. She must then separate the dried bark into thin strips.

Making: Separating the string (2018)Asia Foundation

Now she can start working the fibers, twisting the fibrous strips into long strands and spinning them against her thigh until they’re ready to be looped into the shape of the bag.

Making: Twisting the fiber (2018)Asia Foundation

The rough strips sting and pinch her legs, but she spins them until they are pliant enough to be draped through her fingers.

Making: Threading the fiber (2018)Asia Foundation

Finally, she’ll clean the strands as a final preparation of the fibers.

Making: Rolling the fiber (2018)Asia Foundation

If the weaver plans to use natural dyes or other materials, she’ll collect and prepare these before she starts making the bag.

Making: Dying the fiber (2018)Asia Foundation

The natural dye process adds three to four days to the time it takes to create a bag because the woman needs to gather the materials and extract from their source.

Making: Dried natural fiber for Bilum weaving materials (2018)Asia Foundation

Should she want to incorporate the yellow of turmeric, she’ll have to grind the root into a paste in which she can steep the fibers.

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

She may choose to use local flowers as well to add different hues to the bag, and these, too, will need to be readied. The fibers must be soaked in the dye and then fully dried before she can weave.

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

Preserving Natural Bilum

The use of such indigenous resources enhances the uniqueness of each bag, as it literally embodies the place in which it was made. However, synthetic fibers are not only cheaper and more widely available than natural bilum materials, they’re also easier to use. 

Interview with Gilda Lasibori: What happens if the skill of weaving dies out (2018)Asia Foundation

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

As cheaply produced, vibrantly colored synthetic bags proliferate, these may crowd the market and cause buyers to overlook the handmade products. This makes it all the more difficult for local bilum bag makers to earn a fair price for their work.

Making: Weaving the pattern (2018)Asia Foundation

A seasoned bilum weaver’s hands work deftly, years of muscle memory allowing her to loop and twist the material expertly.

Making: Looping the fiber (2018)Asia Foundation

There’s a calm assuredness about the movement, and there’s a sincere sense of witnessing centuries of wisdom and skills at work in the weaver’s small hut.

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

That bilum making is so integral to Papua New Guinean’s everyday experiences matters deeply for development purposes. As in many emerging economies, development organizations see the sale of handcrafted goods as a means of stimulating financial well-being and elevating the quality of life. But oftentimes, outside groups will come in and teach locals crafting skills and encourage them to sell those products to tourists. Though well-intentioned, these solutions are not authentic to the people of those nations.

Otupaue Peiyo, woman weaver of Bena Village (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum is synonymous with Papua New Guinea. It’s not a forgotten art form or a folksy trade practiced for the benefit of outsiders. Weaving is something every woman in the country learns to do, and bilum bags are a living, breathing artifact of what Papua New Guinea has been for centuries and continues to be today.

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.
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