Get the best of CF straight to your inbox.

Subscribe, sit back, and let your mind travel.

The Female Gaze

The Female Gaze: Caroline Sherman Of Among Equals

Our newest column, The Female Gaze, is a place to elevate female empowerment and listen to those changing the world. In our fifth edition, we speak to Caroline Sherman about her non-profit brand, Among Equals.

Launching eight years ago, Among Equals empowers the female artisan weavers of Papua New Guinea, some of the most marginalised women in the world, by honouring their traditional Bilum craft and turning it into a viable business. Caroline turned her passion for textiles and weaving into a brand that merges art, community, fashion and the ancient practice of Bilum weaving. Working with almost 2,000 women to date, each handwoven bag design captures their unique story and craft, and is sold around the world to customers buying into the magic of Bilum.

Generating life-transforming revenue for women – and their families – from Papua New Guinea, we find out more from Caroline about her pledge to change the lives of women for the better.

What was the moment that lead you to start Among Equals?

It all began when I visited a Pacific Trade and Investments Show and saw the Bilum bags on display – I adored the colour and the intricacy. Each bag was the most wonderful work of art, handwoven by a female artisan from Papua New Guinea. My background is in textile design, and I found it all incredibly inspiring. After hearing the women’s stories I felt deeply moved and committed to helping them grow their industry.

Can you explain what Bilum is and what’s special about it?

Each bag has its own meaning, its own story particular to the weaver and her home region in Papua New Guinea. Mothers pass the stories on to their daughters, and every design symbolises an important element of the weavers’ daily life. In PNG, babies are rocked to sleep in Bilum and each bag embodies a special storytelling tradition that is woven into the fabric, so there is an emotional connection between the weaver and the buyer. You see it in the immediate response our customers have to the Bilum bags.

What steps did you take to begin Among Equals, and how has the business model changed since then? 

I have always been guided by the weavers and made it a point to work closely with elders, aggregators and ambassadors in each community. Florence is a wonderful ambassador based in Goroka, and we have worked together since 2015. Back then, we started with 20 weavers and today we count more than 2,000 women in our community – weavers who live in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach regions in PNG. These women are very much the heart and soul of the brand. The relationship we have with them is transparent – they decide which bags to make, and we have become a key buyer of them, supporting them as small business owners and creatives. Our team has expanded over the years, and we have invested in creative campaigns and marketing in order to attract premium markets.

How is the project changing the lives of the women you support in Papua New Guinea?

We are a not for profit; we are here first and foremost for the weavers of Papua New Guinea. Recently, they asked us to implement a training program in order to reach more communities, so that the industry can further flourish and, having established a growing network of loyal buyers, we are now focused on training and reaching more women. We note that bringing women together in PNG, to grow and foster skills, has many additional benefits: we know that Bilum-making promotes community, safety and wellbeing amongst the weavers by providing a safe place for them to connect, share, support and empower each other. Mothers are able to send their children to school. It also ensures the ancient practice of Bilum weaving continues to be passed down through generations. 

What can buying one bag bring to the women who make them?

Each weaver is paid a premium price in advance of making her Bilum bag. With each Bilum bag sold, there is a huge downstream effect. The funds benefit the community directly and we see each Bilum aiding around 10 to 15 people. By creating a platform for these beautiful bags, it was our aim to reach a wider audience, to tell the weavers’ stories, while at the same time supporting communities of women and their families to grow their industry.

What’s your most memorable moment since the inception of Among Equals?

Among Equals was built around the idea of hope and optimism, we are a joyful brand, and that will continue to be the driving spirit. Being able to expand our reach and connect with remote communities marked a turning point – Lina is an ambassador who works along the Sepik River. Here the women weave incredible bags from natural fibres made from the tulip plant. Lina has a small canoe and motors up the Sepik River to reach hundreds of women who come down to the riverbank to sell their Bilum. Before, these women would have to walk for four days in order to sell just one bag, but now we are able to provide them with a sustainable income.

Tell us the biggest lesson you’ve learnt as a founder of a non-profit: 

Communicating the weavers’ stories is central to everything we do – it’s told via the swing-tags which feature the weaver’s photos and personal stories, the tissue wrap which is printed with words about the communities and their ancient practice, and right through to the way we educate buyers in terms of how our brand message should be communicated. At every level, there is a transparency to our brand which all points back to the weavers.

Tell us about your Papua New Guinea, what does it mean to you? 

Papua New Guinea is an inspiring and stunning country. Working together with these incredibly talented weavers, the relationships we have built on trust and deep friendship over the past almost 10 years is the most special part. I love our annual journeys there. We get to see first hand the impact that the sales of the Bilum have, we listen to their stories and really understand their needs. The country has become like a second home and the weavers, like family. 

If there was something you could change today for young women globally, what would it be?

I think it is important to look back to our ancestors. In PNG, the women place great emphasis on supporting each other and uplifting each other. Every young woman deserves the right to be educated, economically empowered and independent.

What advice would you give to other women wanting to give back to the world? 

One common theme that we like to talk about is the idea of allyship – of being among equals. This involved building a dedicated team and working together to achieve positive outcomes for the community, supporting each other as we go. To do that you need to value the importance of listening and you need to have great hope and passion for the cause. With Flo guiding us, we have been able to support communities via different initiatives – there is always a community-driven approach behind what we do, which in turn empowers the women in making change. We share a single mission on the journey together.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The impact that we have had on the women and their families. Also, there is something very special and rewarding about seeing someone wearing a Bilum. Just knowing how much love has gone into making it and what a massive effect it has had on that woman’s life. 

What’s on the cards for 2024?

We are excited to be taking a team to meet with Lina and the remote communities along the Sepik River. We are hosting monthly events at our beautiful new store in Paddington, New South Wales. And we have a few exciting new collections launching, which will really showcase the weaver’s creativity and innovation.


We may earn a commission if you buy something from any affiliate links on our site.

You May Also Like

Any Questions or Tips to add?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *