Net bag (bilum)

From Wahgi Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea, late 20th century AD


Net bags are found throughout Papua New Guinea. Women use them to carry babies on their backs, or hang them to form a hammock-like cradle. They are also used to carry garden or market produce, firewood, personal possessions or ritual equipment. Women exchange them as gifts. Similar netting techniques are used to make hats, aprons and fishing nets. Women often wear these bags tied over their foreheads.

Women mostly make net bags from natural plant fibres, or more recently from imported brightly coloured woollen or acrylic yarns, or extruded nylon thread. In all cases the fibres are twisted on the maker's thigh to make a stronger, tighter strand. Marsupial fur is sometimes added to the fibre. The bag is made by netting or looping the yarn, using a technique that results in a flexible, laterally expansive bag. Today women use a narrow, stiff plastic band as a spacer to ensure that the loops of a row are an even size.

Some bags are loosely netted, and have handles made as part of the bag, which are tied together. These are now mostly decorated with multi-coloured horizontal stripes. Others are generally smaller and more tightly netted. They are trapezoidal, square or rectangular in shape, generally with attached, separately made, carrying straps. This type of bag often has specific named geometric designs, or lettering. This example, intended for sale to visitors, depicts the flag of Papua New Guinea on one side, the other has the wording 'PNG BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY'.

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More information


S. Baker, Make your own bilum (Brisbane, Boolarong Publications, 1985)

M. O'Hanlon, Paradise: portraying the New G (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)

N. Thomas, Oceanic art (London, Thames and Hudson, 1995)

M.A. MacKenzie, Androgynous objects: string ba (Chur, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991)


Width: 70.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1990.Oc9.151


Collected by M.D.P. O'Hanlon
Purchased with the assistance of The British Museum Friends


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