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What is a bilum?

Those that read The Bilum from cover to cover will know from the inside front page that bilums are handwoven string bags that have been crafted and used for hundreds of years by Papua New Guineans.

The name Bilum comes from a term for womb and they are still used to carry babies. However they are not just for small children, bilums are used for precious belongings, food, harvested materials and firewood. Traditionally they were made from the bark of a particular tree. Strips of bark would be twisted round with rope to form the bag. However nowadays more materials are used, including different yarns.

This has led to a profusion of styles and colours. Different regions of PNG have different styles in making bilums and you can often tell someone’s home region from the pattern in their bilums. Two of the sisters in PNG told us about their bilums.

Sr Maryanne Kolkia admitted that her bilum making skills were not great. ‘When I was a girl I spent most of my time with my father, so I didn’t really learn how to make them. I tried at school but I had to give up and get my friends to make them’. She has 4 or 5 different bilums which she uses, small ones for things like food and keys and bigger ones for books and newspapers. Maryanne is from Simbu, one of the highland regions of PNG. They tend to use wool in their bilums but will often weave cuscus fur into their bilums to denote their area.

Sr Theresia Boyek comes from Kairiru Island to the north of PNG. Traditionally, bilums from there were made with a special blend of fibre, but nowadays store-bought wools and ropes are used more. The islands use a distinctive pattern in their bilums. Theresia explained that even adults were sometimes carried in bilums: ‘before we had roads, bilums were even made to carry sick people in for treatment.’ The technique used for making bilums is being increasingly used for other things, such as decorations and even dresses. ‘In our work in the women’s prisons we teach bilum making,’ said Theresia, ‘it’s a good method of teaching skills for the women.’

Make your own bilum

If you want to try making your own bilum, an associate professor from the University of Hawai’i has translated some instructions from PNG’s Liklik Buk (an information book on PNG village activities). You can access it here.

Photo of mother carrying a bilum
A mother using a bilum to carry shopping