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The making of a bilum (and why not to buy fakes)

Bilum weavingPETER KRANZ

MORRISET – Krungutim lain (twisting rope) is not a lost art. You have to twist the wool to make it stronger and reduce stretch. It’s also the world’s sexiest craft.

Cuban cigars used to be advertised with the catchline that they were 'rolled on the thighs of dusky maidens'. Well the same is true of traditional PNG bilums [strong bags].

And as the proud partner of a dusky maiden, I believe I have the right to reveal a few trade secrets.

When you have your rope you have to get weaving. This involves umbrella spokes. If you don't have any old umbrellas, wheely-wheely spokes will do. Then you just need a pair of pliers to make a hook. Then thread your rope.

Now comes the clever part. In the western world, it’s called crochet or tatting, but PNG women need no fancy words to ply their trade.

You interweave colours and patterns to make a basic shape and weave up from that to make a bag.

Then you add handles and stitch it all together.

BilumsThis is a most amazing thing. Papua New Guinean women do this from instinct and memory - there are no printed instructions. Given the interplay between mathematics and intricate patterns, I reckon PNG women are the untold mathematical geniuses of the world.

Bilums are the stock in trade for tens of thousands of PNG women. A good craftswoman can produce a bilum in a week, taking many hours of fine work.

The result is a thing of beauty. Bloody brilliant! Remember this the next time you are offered a bilum.

And don’t accept Chinese machine made fakes. This disrespects the effort of the women and the culture of PNG that they are maintaining.


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Philip Kai Morre

Peter - very interesting story. Bilum makers are talented and women are advancing with new designs and patterns that you will find it hard to comprehend.

The old women, including my mother in the past, used bush ropes and tree bark to make bilums. They found bush plants to add colour and patterns.

It is a tedious process that requires time and commitment. Most of us born before the independence slept in the bilum. Bilums were our home for the first 2 to 3 years and our mother breast fed us only when we cried.

Peter Kranz

Arthur - That is a brilliant recollection. Much better than my attempt. Good onya!

Arthur Williams

My deceased wife, like many young PNG women, often surprised me in the many skills she accomplished. I think she learnt because of her mother’s ideas of what a young Lavongai woman must be able to do to support her family.

Importantly she could scale the tallest coconut palm, sew leaves for roofs, make sacsac and prepare its branches for walling our huts. I saw her cut pandanus and then go through the hard and boring process before the fabric was ready to make a plain sleeping mat or with natural dyes weave them into in clever patterns.

From a non-secondary school background she was able to speak Tunag her mother tongue; Mussau, Pidgin and reasonable English perhaps because being as a SDA Christian they used the English KJV1 Bible and used the English language SDA Hymn Book along with hearing many Sabbath sermons and lessons also in English.

She could converse in Tigak with the folk around Kavieng.
When we moved to the Gogodala she soon picked up enough to talk with the locals. Down in the swamps she quickly learnt how to use the traditional hand held cane fish or lobster trap.

In muddy Baimuru the manager’s house was surrounded on three sides by a verandah and she taught herself macramé so that we eventually had many flower pots hanging in their macramé cradles .

It was up in Tari that she spent hours sitting with ladies watching them do the initial thigh rolling. This would have been impossible on Lavongai as exposing your leg above the knee is frowned upon.

Then she observed when the experts began their weaving into mostly plain bilums. Incidentally when i worked at Kawito all of the highland stores I managed were buying points for a lot of the local bilum output of their respective area.

I gave each storeman a template marked with various sizes and with our buying price clearly marked for him and the seller ladies. The bilums were dispatched normally by MAF to my base in Kawito. I would check them and credit each store with total purchase price.

The bags would then be back-loaded to Pasuwe Ltd’s HQ in Varahe St. Gordons estate by any of the Steamships vessels that delivered goods to my depot on a monthly basis.

I also had a Gogodala craftsman who was able to make well designed and crafted cane armchairs; these too were sent to HQ and along with the bilums sold to many of the expat families then in the city.

I managed to retain two bilums that are now hanging in my home here. One was as a present during my road trip with Craig McConaghy from the Porosa Valley (Congratulations on his recent award of a MBE) The other I believe is one made by my wife.

Yes Peter our PNG wives have done us proud over the years.

Alas I was unable to offer mine any useful skill. She once graphically described me: “Yu ararei long ol man!. Yu no inap stanapim haus! Yu no inap katim kanu! Yu no inap meikim bikpela gaten! Yu bilong givim bel tasol! Ol man samting bilong seim!" (You’re at the boundary of being a useful man! You can’t build a house! You can’t make a canoe! You can’t make a proper garden! You just make me pregnant! (we then had four) I should be ashamed!) No wonder the Lavongai tribe is matrilineal.

One other skill was her downfall. She could compete with any man in rolling part of a page of the Sydney Morning Heralds in a filled 12 inch cigarette (worthy of a commercial jingle ‘For long lasting satisfaction you need the SMH!’)

Eventually she graduated in the good times to smoking Winfield 25s and ended up dying in her thirties. She was up to 75 a day.

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