Our Founder


My earliest observation in PNG was the kaleidoscope of colourful, patterned bags everyone was carrying. Men carried them round their necks and women slung them over a shoulder or their head to carry a baby, food or firewood. These beautiful string bags were called bilums and were the fabric of society in Papua New Guinea. They also turned out to be a foundation in my own life.

But how did a 27 year old girl from England end up in Papua New Guinea?

After studying Social Anthropology at university, I ended up working in communications for TV and fashion, but one question always niggled at me; is this all there is?

In 2008, I decided to explore what my inner voice was asking and moved from London to Papua New Guinea to volunteer in a theatre for awareness project which addressed the spread of HIV in rural communities.

After meeting my husband in the remote Northern town of Madang, a four month placement turned into 12 years living in Port Moresby and a lifelong love affair with a man, a country and its art.

Portrait of Jessica Cassell founder of social enterprise Bilum and Bilas
Baby sleeping in a blue and white bilum

Living in PNG, my home became a gallery to the most beautiful collection of traditional arts and crafts and I used bilums all the time. When my babies were born, they slept in a blue and white bilum hung from a beam in our house. If I sometimes failed to get my babies to sleep, the gentle swing of the bilum never did. 

Over the years, I got to know many Papua New Guinean women who made and sold bilums, crafts and bilas (tok pisin for jewellery and decoration). They all struggled to survive. Why did such talented women need to live such a hand to mouth existence when they created such beautiful artworks?

If I had fallen in love with the beauty of PNG arts and crafts, I knew others would too. 

Many traditional adornments and bilums at the time were very elaborate colours and styles, but what if I collaborated with artisans to create designs that would resonate with a different customer and their lifestyles? Could this mean a wider market and an increased income for Papua New Guinean women and their families?

It was here that Bilum & Bilas was born. 

Bilum & Bilas was founded through my love for Papua New Guineas rich arts and crafts, a desire to support the talented female artisans at the heart of their creation and a passion to develop designs celebrating traditional artistry in forms that would compliment my every-day style.

Everyday I get to connect and collaborate with other women and explore and play creatively. I hope the results of this cultural collaboration and creation are unique pieces that bring joy to other women around the world, whilst empowering female artisans to earn a living through their cultural knowledge.

Jessica Cassell founder of Bilum and Bilas with community of artisans and weavers in Hohola in Port Moresby