BILUM WEAR – WEAVING THE FABRIC OF PNG SOCIETY


This article was published in Paradise - Air Niugini's  In-flight Magazine & in Fiji's Air Pacific In-flight Magazine


There is nothing more Papua New Guinean than a bilum. When I am overseas and I see someone carrying a bilum, something uncharacteristic happens. I stop in my tracks and check the person up and down. It is the association with all things Papua New Guinean that stirs the familiar wistful feeling at the sight of a bilum on a stranger.

The ethnic origin of the word bilum is unclear even though it is thought to be a Melanesian word. It is defined in ‘The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin’ by Fr Frank Mihalic s.v.d as a carry-all by women throughout Papua New Guinea. In some areas, the net or woven string, is used as clothing thus the expression Meri i pasim bilum. Bilum is also defined as the womb, the placenta, or the pouch of a marsupial such as a wallaby.


In traditional societies bilum is woven from animal fur, dried fibre extracted from tree bark, sisal or vine. In urban areas, bilum is also woven from wool or twine purchased from trade stores. The versatility and practicality of a bilum is well renowned. It is still used for carrying garden produce or for moving goods from place to place. It is also used for carrying babies. You can identify what province a bilum is from by the designs and style of the bilum. In recent times, bilum has become a much sought-after accessory item and an attractive souvenir object for tourists and visitors to Papua New Guinea. Very very recently though, the bilum has become a fashionable attire to wear.

Many of you who watched the televised broadcast of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Melbourne in 2006 will remember the Papua New Guinea Team in their brilliance. The athletes were dressed in bilum wear and looked spectacular in the national colours of red, black and gold, woven by the women of Eastern Highlands under the auspices of Jaukae Bilum Products based in Goroka.

That was a very proud moment for Florence Jaukae, the Managing Director and Principal Designer of Jaukae Bilum Products. She recalled the overwhelming emotion she felt as she sat watching the Team flying the PNG colours past the grandstand. It was the biggest order the Jaukae Bilum Products had just completed – 52 pieces in all, consisting of neck ties for men; and one and two-piece outfits for women.

Florence Jaukae with former Health Minister, Sir Peter Barter 
after a fashion parade in Port Moresby


Jaukae Bilum Products was set up in 2001 and generates income for 50 women and their families, predominantly from Kama village. The venture is a women’s community project initiated by Florence who saw the need to provide self-help activities to the local women as well as to utilize the unique talents of bilum weaving in the highlands. Florence was then the local Ward Councillor and a women’s leader. She had been working as a bookkeeper for Frameworks Architects in Goroka for 16 years.

The inspiration to begin the Jaukae Bilum Products came about one day when she noticed the colours on a carpet snake and a Christmas beetle (popularly worn as part of a headdress in the Highlands). The patterns and colours on the snake and the insect got her wondering what they would look like on a clothing item, particularly woven like a bilum. One thing led to another and before she knew it a group of women had congregated, perhaps more out of curiosity than anything else.

Weaving bilum is second nature to the women of the highlands and they did not need much coaching to get going. In fact, to the highlands women - the brighter the colours of the bilum, the higher the price. Nevertheless the venture has been a learning curve for them. The women have modified the art of weaving a bilum. In the case of a bilum for carrying goods, weaving begins at the bottom of the bag and ends at the mouth with the handle being the last bit to be completed. To make a clothing item such as a dress, weaving the main body piece begins at the neck and goes down to the hem. Sleeves are done separately and attached.

Jaukae Bilum Products operates from a Community Hall in Kama where the women and some young men are assigned to do customer orders daily. Florence is quick to add that the men’s main task is to spin the fibre so that it is taut enough for the women to weave.  Up till now, they have been receiving small orders to make dresses, tops, skirts, neck ties, beer coolers and patch-work. Patch-work is bits of bilum woven into jean trousers, jackets and skirts.

The clothing items are made from wool and tree bark fibre with added decorations such as chicken and cassowary feathers, cuscus fur, seeds, beads, shells and pigs tusks. Intricate as it is, washing or cleaning of bilum wear should be done with extreme care to avoid stretching, shrinkage and discolouring. Bilum wear made from tree bark fibre, sisal or vine is more delicate. It should only be aired.

An item of bilum wear takes six weeks minimum to make and is quite labour intensive.  Prices range from K200 for a top to K300 for a full-length dress. During the year-end graduation ceremonies, outfits are hired out for K30.00 an hour to assist parents who could not afford to buy the bilum wear. Two-thirds of the income goes to the women and the remainder goes towards the cost of materials and other expenses.

Florence acknowledges that the art of weaving a bilum is not unique to Eastern Highlands women.
 “When a woman looks at a bilum that she has not seen before, she can go away and make one just as easily. We cannot stop that from happening. Our main problem is marketing our products”, she said.

Jaukae Bilum Products can make anything according to customer demand and is open to suggestions from corporate organisations who want tailor-made products or unique branding. With recent exposure in Melbourne and a show in Brisbane, the women are hoping for orders from outside the country as well.

The women have been fortunate enough to attract the attention of government agency SBDC (Small Business Development Corporation), and OXFAM who have assisted them in training and skills development. In 2006, Jaukae Bilum Products was one of 18 groups in the country that won the inaugural “PNG Tingim Youth” contest and received financial assistance from the World Bank. The venture has now diversified with the establishment of a piggery farm and an elementary school.
  
Jaukae Bilum Products is not without its critics. Florence explained that in the beginning certain sectors of the community opposed the venture saying that the bilum was not meant for wearing. But this mother of 9 (including 4 adopted children) has stood firm. She knows that something as unique as a bilum has the potential to create a niche market and uses every opportunity to wear it as a walking advertisement.

When I interviewed Florence she had just got off the plane from Goroka wearing a beautiful green and blue knee-length bilum dress and carried a matching bilum bag. The colours of her outfit were much like the colours of a Christmas beetle. 

She is determined to see the bilum transform into something bigger and better- hopefully to being the National Dress of Papua New Guinea. After all, to weave a bilum wear can be likened to weaving the fabric of PNG society.

copyright -  Euralia Paine

5 comments:

Mari said...

Hi Euralia,
Love this post on Bilum Wear. Great article on the bilum as a fabric for apparel that is uniquely PNG. Am doing a post on Cathy Kata and wanted to link your blog post to my post so people can read your wonderful post. Enjoy your posts - keep writing. Cheers, M

islandmeri said...

Would like to order a dress from Florence also. How do I get in touch with her?
Cheers,
Mari

Anonymous said...

I'd like to order one too. Can somebody help me get in touch with please

Ambine

Euralia Paine said...

Hi there

There are now several different Bilum dress makers who sell the stuff through various means & in different towns. I will attempt to find Florence in Goroka as unfortunately I have lost her contact.

cheers
EP

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Interesting to surf your blog. I come to notice your blog through a google search on PNG bilum products. I live in Goroka and have seen Florence but never had the chance to talk to her although I knew she is into bilum products. Well, we as a youth group, also have interest in "PNG Bilum Products" as we call it. We have been trying to assist mothers and girls make bilum and sell bilum and evemtually we wanted to see this as an industry of its own. We also have interest to know the first PNG woman or man who made bilums....and also we would wanted to record the bilum making history from PNG. There are several books being published recently on bilums and we continue to review them and try to see the future of PNG BILUM PRODUCTS industry.

You can visit our blog also at: http://melanesianway.blogspot.com/

With kind regards!

Melanesian Way Admin.

 

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