Beautiful Handmade Bilums (bags) of Papua New Guinea

bilum and sweet peas

Click here to buy a unique handmade bilum on www.artfire.com now! Limited number available.

The last time I spent more than a couple days in Papua New Guinea I learned how to make a bilum from a wonderful highland woman by the name of Kapaim. She was very patient with me–I was determined to finish before I had to leave to begin culinary school. I worked day and night, stubbornly insisting on rolling most of the string myself. I finished the job in time–I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to finish if I didn’t get it done. Even then it took me at least three weeks and this is a small bilum! Unfortunately I didn’t manage to remember how to start a new one and haven’t been able to make another one since. I have just discovered these great detailed instructions for making a bilum on The Papua New Guinea Bilum facebook page.

Image from www.hagenhandicrafts.com

For those of you who are wondering what in the world I am on about a bilum is the traditional handmade string bag that all women in Papua New Guinea know how to make. They were originally made with fibre from various local trees and often included the fur from a tree kangaroo (neither the trees, nor the tree kangaroo are killed to make these bags). These days they are generally made from imported yarn, although you can still find traditionally made fibre bilums in the highlands. Check out this great blog that shows the detailed process of harvesting, drying, rolling and weaving a bilum from natural fibre.

I grew up in Mt Hagen which is one of the main highlands cities and was surrounded by these colorful bilums for most of my youth. My younger siblings were rocked to sleep in a large bilum, and the women of our village were constantly either rolling string, working on a variety of colorful bags or lugging huge amounts of sweet potato to and from the Hagen market on their backs in a bilum. Bilums are very useful in that they can stretch to amazing sizes and hold incredible amounts of produce (or baby!). In Papua New Guinea, the women do pretty much all the work while the men generally sit around and treat them badly. Women do most of the gardening, take care of the pigs (in fact traditionally they lived with the pigs while the men lived together in the men’s house).

Handmade diamond bilum. Click on image to purchase via ArtFire.com

I still remember our daily trip into town to go to school, we had a series of second-hand vans that often needed a push to get them started in the morning. On our journey to school we would pass many villagers on foot on their way to town. My father would generally try to pick up as many old ladies buried under their huge bilums as possible, but if we stopped near a pack of young men, they would rush to the car, shove the old woman out of the way and push their way in. My father would insist that they get out of the way and let in the old woman and her bilum stuffed with sweet potatoes. (The men were generally carrying nothing).

Bilums are made with a sturdy woven handle and the bag is usually carried with this strap placed over the forehead with some padding underneath if it is very heavy and the weight balanced along the spine. Often the huge bag will totally cover the lady underneath it so that it just looks like a sack of potatoes walking down the road on a couple of feet. Older women, who have been carrying this weight every day of their lives generally develop pigeon feet from the constant pressure. In my opinion Papua New Guinean women are very amazing, strong women. Most of them are sexually and physically abused as well as having to do pretty much all of the work to support their families to survive.

Unique handmade bilum. Click on image to purchase via ArtFire.com

The bilums they create reflect themselves, they are strong, practical and beautiful works of art. There is a huge variety of designs and colors. They have even started making dresses with this weaving technique! Since there is such a huge push these days in the Western world to wean ourselves off of our addiction to plastic bags I highly recommend getting yourself a bilum. A well made bilum will last 20 or more years and will be the envy of everyone when you pull it out at the farmers market and stuff it to the brim with fresh local produce. I have found a couple websites that are selling them in Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately the price of shipping is rather prohibitive. I have a couple of bilums that a friend brought back for me to sell and if I manage to sell them I will see if I can get some more via the wantok network.

These bilums take a few weeks to make and the price reflects the amount of time put into each bag. But as I mentioned earlier they are beautiful, unique, last forever, can hold much more in volume and weight than you might expect. And by buying one you can support the women of Papua New Guinea who are often raped repeatedly from very young ages and as they get older they are frequently beaten by drunken husbands, fathers and brothers. In fact the website Hagen Handicrafts has bilums available that are mostly made by women with HIV/AIDS from sexual abuse.

Websites that Sell Bilums

More Info:

How to make a Bilum:

How Traditional Fibre Bilums are Made:

12 Comments

  1. Zoe Hatt says:

    I have a bilum bag from PNG and love it. Mine is made in bright colours. I read where they are made now as a fashion piece and sold in America. I use mine at the markets and when I go to woolworths.
    We are not allowed to have plastic bags in Canberra at woolworths. This is better than a string bag and so strong. These bags are being bought by teenagers and organic eating 30 year olds. They suit every age! I am getting one made to carry a baby in.
    Thanks
    Zoe

  2. June says:

    Great to see bilum is appreciated. Women in PNG have become more creative in making bilums to blend in with the fashion. Now making lady bags and its quiet a step forward and encouraging as you all appreciate our PNG bilum bags.

    Cheers

  3. Kerry says:

    Please let me know if you have a nice large bilum for sale.

    • hellaD says:

      Hi Kerry,
      Thanks so much for your interest in bilums! I so appreciate your comment on how useful your bilum has been for you since 1983! I totally agree those bags are amazing and they last forever. They are so well made.

      I have a bunch more bilum’s my father brought back from PNG and I have finally gotten around to posting them on my artfire store. We can ship to Australia if you do want to order one. They are different sizes and you can see them here:

      http://www.artfire.com/ext/shop/home/hellaD/0/0/445643

  4. Kerry says:

    I have owned a bilum since 1983, & use it every single day. It is my bag for work, or a bag to go to the gym. Many times it has been packed to the hilt with Library books, & it takes plenty. I have been searching for a long time now for another bilum, a nice large one in bright colours, but so far – no luck. Keeping my fingers crossed to find one in Australia one day.

    • Breda says:

      Dear Kerry, I have a beautiful billum for sale.It has been made by the native women in Goroko. PNG
      It is brand new, never used in bright colours. I am afraid it is eexpensive at $85 plus postage but it will last for about 20 years.If you are interested please email me and I will send you photos.Kind regards, Breda

    • Freda says:

      hi Kerry im realy happy with what you have mentioned on carrying bilum around and it lasted you for years and i was just thinking if i meet you here in PNG i could give you a free one. email me if you are interested in free donation.

      thanks
      freda.

      • Kerry Baumann says:

        Hi Freda, That would have been lovely, but I am in Brisbane and have never even had a passport. My bilum was given to me by my mother, as she’d lived in Port Moresby from 1981-1989. I had 3 young children during that time – so unable to go overseas at all.
        I’ve submitted a picture of my gorgeous bilum:

        My Bilum

        Here it is – the one I’ve had since 1984. The measurements are 46cm wide x 42cm high, with the strap being 60cm long. It goes to the gym, the library, & the beach. All over the place, & has been wonderful. It stretches to hold so much stuff, it’s awesome!!!

        Would really like to find another of similar size, and made of same tyle of yarn, but so far have had no luck.

  5. Bülent says:

    Dear Sir/ Madam,

    I am writing you from Turkey. I have been to Indonesia two times and there I saw that they have got very special bags. Also I saw your bags via internet I would like to market your bags in my country.
    Please send me some information ( manufacturing capacity and price etc.) about the bags.

    Best Regards
    Bülent ÇAKMAK
    Cell Phone +905549711001
    e-mail:[email protected]

  6. Hi! I am researching for an article on bilum bags and am working diligently to create one myself based on an obscure book I found years and years ago.. If the author of this article could contact me to answer a few questions, I’d appreciate it greatly. Thanks! [email protected]

  7. Phillipa says:

    Bilums are becoming less uncommon in Australia – I have seen a number of people (maybe 6-8 over the last 4 years) walking around with them, but also they are sold at hippy stalls in markets in Sydney now (I assume they are made in australia by PNG expats because they dont feel the same as the PNG ones – theyre much softer)

    I go to PNG regularly and always either buy or am given bilums. I have been using them since 2009 when i first went and they are the best bags ever. I do research on PNG and whenever i go to conferences people will come up to me and ask about PNG cause they recognise it as a the universal emblem of PNG research!!!

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