Papua New Guinea weavers clinch a global market with bilums


Papua New Guinea’s revered bilums are fast gaining world renown, while the weavers who make them reap much-needed rewards. Bronwen Gora reports.

A styled bilum as part of the most recent Among Equals campaign. Credit: Among Equals, @_hannahscottstevenson_ and styled by @bridie.gilbert, with set design by @felixjjeromez.

Prior to 2015, relatively few bilums were sold internationally, with most sales in Papua New Guinean markets. Fast forward to the present day and an estimated 4300 of the bags have sold globally since through a not-for-profit enterprise called Among Equals, with all earnings flowing back to the communities from where they came.

The woman responsible for Among Equals is Sydney textile designer Caroline Sherman.

“When I first saw the bags (bilums), I was struck by their colour and beauty but also by the vibrancy of the women I met that day who made them,” Sherman recalls. “They each had such a joyous spirit and were so passionate about their work.”

Before long, Sherman had learned that the exquisitely made traditional product was sold solely within PNG, crafted as part of a centuries-old weaving history, and that the weavers were seeking someone to make their dreams of reaching an international market come true.

The craftsmanship of a bilum is intricate, considered and meaningful; for example, a diamond design bilum is gifted by a mother to a daughter when she marries; a mountain design tells the story of a young girl’s challenging hike through the jungle to sell her bilum at a market.

Now the bilums are sold everywhere from Australia to the US, UK and Italy, and have even been spotted on the red carpet at Hollywood’s Academy Awards.

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“I just love the stories. You’re not just buying a bag, you’re buying an incredible story.”

Best of all is how the global trajectory is giving back to weavers and their communities.

“With each bilum sold, we can directly see the benefits aiding anything from 10 to 15 people,” Sherman says.

“Putting food on the table is the most important thing. After that, all the proceeds go back into buying more bilums, training, and into different divisions for projects,” she says. “Our network of weavers has expanded from 20 to more than 2000 and we’re training more all the time.”

Sherman says she has been able to see the impact. “A lot of the little girls in these communities weren’t going to school, for instance, before we started…Now the mothers can afford [school fees]…We pay each weaver a premium price for their bilum, and this has given hundreds of women regular incomes for school fees and living expenses.”

The Among Equals network of weavers spans eight communities across as many provinces, including remote Sandaun. It would not be possible without ‘aggregators’, leaders in each area such as Lina Singu, who has made it her mission to travel by boat along the Sepik River, training women in some of the country’s most far-flung villages.

Florence Jaukae Kamel manages the PNG operation daily and oversees multiple initiatives like the Blue Haus, a purpose-built house, especially for the weavers in Goroka. A happy place, it is light and airy, complete with a water tank and sanitation unit, and provides a place for socialising, weaving and training, with more such spaces in the pipeline.

As well as helping educate hundreds of children in under a decade, Among Equals has teamed with the Books 4 PNG Kids initiative to improve literacy in early childhood.

For Sherman, building Among Equals has been as equally rewarding as it has for the women whose lives her brainchild has immeasurably transformed.

“It’s unusual for the women to have the level of trust in me that they do,” Sherman says. “We’ve taken things very gradually and built up that trust slowly…Now they’re like my sisters, they’re like family, and each of their bags tells a story of strength and hope.”

The original article was first published in the April–June 2024 issue of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini. This is an edited version. 


  1. A beautiful and heartfelt mission helping the ‘mamas’ with their produce.

  2. Well done, all those who are involved in this.

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