The story of Among Equals is one of collaboration and joy. We sat down with the founder of Among Equals, Caroline Sherman, to talk about the journey so far.
Can you tell us a bit about the Among Equals story and where it all began?
I decided to launch Among Equals, a not-for-profit in early 2015, with the aim of directly and positively impacting the lives of women and children in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Today we are working with eight different communities across PNG. Every bag sold helps to improve the circumstances of the women we work with and lift their families’ lives. I hope that by contributing in this small way I can help, not by providing charity but by empowering women to create sustainable, long-lasting income through their traditional craft.
In a broad sense what is bilum? What is it made from and used for?
There are two main types of bilum – one is the highly colourful bilum and the other is the natural fibre bilum. The colourful bilum we sell is made from secondhand or end-of-line clothes, sent from Australia in shipping containers. The women repurpose the yarn and weave it into these incredible artworks. The natural bilum is made from pandanus or sisal, which is collected from out in nature, usually down on riverbanks. Leaves are hand-rolled on the thigh and dyed using natural pigments including bark, leaves, berries, and clay, then woven together to create bilum.
Every bilum tells a story – mothers pass these stories on to their daughters through bilum, which is what makes it so special. Babies are rocked to sleep in their bilum, if you marry your mother gives you a diamond design bilum or if you buy a piece of land, you get a house bilum. Each design symbolises an important element of the weaver’s life and every bag embodies a special storytelling tradition. Each weaver crafts her own signature pattern so no two are the same. Together we work to strike a balance between tradition, modernity, art and fashion – all of this while focusing on improving the women's livelihoods and living conditions.
Above: Caroline wears the Fonda Top in Whisper and Pac Shirt in White, styled with new bilum from the Among Equals x Jac + Jack Winter 2023 collaboration.
We loved hearing the story of Florence Jaukae Kamel, your friend and ambassador of Among Equals. Can you tell us about your friendship with Florence and some of her story?
Florence, Flo or as some know her, the ‘Bilum Meri’ is our main ambassador. We met in 2015. An excerpt from an interview with Flo from 2017: "My name is Florence Kamel. I’m from Goroka and I have been working with bilum for the past 15 years now. But most of the time I try to find market for bilum weavers. There are cases of bilum out there but nobody to find market for us, so I have to find a way. I believe there is always a way around things, and I do really believe in that. We went to an... exhibition and I was introduced to Caroline Sherman of Among Equals.”
The connection was instant. Flo is based in Papua New Guinea full-time, and it’s out of this collaboration that Among Equals has really been able to find its footing. Flo is a powerhouse; she has a passion for bilum like no other. I remember when we first started working together, we'd speak on the phone and the reception was so bad, she’d have to stand on a mountain to get enough coverage. We’re constantly discussing colour and pattern over Facetime. The curation of our collections and our work together has allowed us to expand Among Equals to an international level, which is really so exciting.
Last year you and Florence travelled to London to showcase beautiful bilum to key media including British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, the British Fashion Council and the Financial Times. Can you tell us about the trip and what it meant for Among Equals?
It was an incredible experience, Flo and I travelling to London together. We spoke at a Fashion Hub hosted by the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas in September last year. We also had a pop up in Alex Eagle which is a divine store in Soho.
Flo’s just a force. You know when you hear her speak, you can’t not want to buy a bag and contribute to the weaver’s story. She’s just been elected in a government position as a leader of women in Papua New Guinea. She works so hard. And it’s not just in Goroka, she leads women and runs these training programs all over the country. But for her to hop on a plane and come all the way to London is a really massive thing, and then to speak publicly and for her to feel that she can lead the women in Papua New Guinea but also sit on a stage in London and speak to high-end press and tell her story and the stories of others and have everyone so engaged; it’s just quite incredible really. She’s such a special person.
We have worked really hard to give bilum a global platform – and it felt like it was all brought together when Flo told her story. It's amazing to see the joy from the weavers, they get so excited to see their work out in the world being recognised. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved but am mindful that we’ve got lots of work to do.
Above: Caroline with the bilum from the Among Equals x Jac + Jack Winter 2023 collaboration and diagrams of the meanings behind bilum designs.
Can you explain your non-for-profit model?
Each weaver is paid a premium price in advance of making her bilum bag. We began with 30 weavers; we now work with up to 2,000.
“If you are buying a bilum through Among Equals, you’re buying a bilum that has a very big downstream effect. It goes back to our village, our community. One bilum benefits 10-15 people, it does. The biggest impact is new clothes, a warm blanket to cover oneself at night. It is not about charity. You are giving business to us as weavers. And we are making business out of it. Business is not only big business, buildings and all this. It comes right down to the home that we have and we live in. And our experience is the greatest experience of a lifetime that we have, with selling our bilums," - the Bilum Meri, Florence Kamel.
Among Equals’ mission is to empower women and communities in Papua New Guinea through sustainable, consistent business. This mission is multi-faceted as Among Equals also endeavours to create safe spaces for women to work on their craft. Can you tell us about the Blue Haus and its importance to your story?
When I asked the women what their wish was, they requested a space that they could come together to weave, eat and rest. In 2017 we built the Blue Haus in Goroka with money from the sale of bilum. In the past the women would weave by candlelight or kerosene lamp, the Blue Haus has running water and electricity. It’s a lovely space where women can come together for training, socialising, or to work. A space for the women to enjoy together.
What’s on the cards for 2023?
We’re just really focused on telling the weavers' stories now. The last couple of years has been tough as we haven’t been able to go to Papua New Guinea and therefore it's been more difficult to tell the stories of the women we work with. Our focus in the next six months is to tell their stories and have their voices be heard. We’re going to take a documentary filmmaker and our beautiful photographer who takes our campaign images with us on the trip. It’s also just about growth really – the more bilum we sell, the more it benefits the community, that growth really inspires us and drives us forward.
Oh, and we’re also moving into a new space in 2023. We’ve got a new shop in Paddington, so that’s super exciting.
Above: the Blue Haus in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, an artisan weaving bilum, Caroline and Florence, and Florence speaking at the Among Equals pop up at Alex Eagle in London in 2022.