Weaving, millinery and cross-cultural skill sharing in Vanuatu

Drawing from notions of Sustainable Materialism, Anastasia Mortimer talks to Milliner Rosie Boylan about her experience of working in a cross-cultural collaboration with women weavers in Vanuatu. Rosie is sharing her hat making skills as part of an initiative supported by the Australian Government called the Vanuatu Skills Partnership. The initiative works with the Vanuatu Government to assist women in developing practical business skills so that they can sell hats in local and international markets.

Women of Malo Island making pandanus hats. Image by Ruth Choulai - Pacific Trade Invest Australia.

Women in Vanuatu are underrepresented in the formal economic sector, and as of 2009, women represented only thirty-three percent of employees in the paid workforce (The World Bank, 2009, p.26). One aspect of the underrepresentation of women stems from the low rates of women in vocational, technical, and tertiary education, which limits their opportunity to enter the paid workforce (Bowman, et al., 2009, p.22-27).

Education and skills development are key to addressing the underlying gender inequalities that hinder female financial empowerment in the region (Macintyre, 2000, p.143), and in recognising these issues, local and international governments and organisations are establishing local opportunities for women’s economic participation through education and skill building enterprises.

Milliner Rosie Boylan, whose creations have been featured in films such as The Great Gatsby, Australia and Moulin Rouge, is currently working with the Vanuatu Government through the Vanuatu Skills Partnership, which is an initiative supported by the Australian Government which aims to assist in building the technical and business management skills of economically marginalised women.

For the last three years, Rosie has been working with women weavers of Vanuatu, in what she refers to as an “opportunity for cross-cultural skill sharing and cross-cultural learning.” Rosie has been sharing her extensive knowledge of hat making so that women weavers can apply new skills to their traditional weaving practices. Rosie explains that these initiatives work to develop the cultural knowledge of women so that they can use their knowledge to develop community-based social entrepreneurship that relies on what works locally.

Rosie with hat weavers Elsie and Lina of Malo Island, Vanuatu. Image by Ruth Choulai – Pacific Trade Invest Australia.

Traditionally, women in Vanuatu hold the majority of cultural knowledge of weaving, and their knowledge includes plant knowledge on how to turn local, raw materials into everyday household items (Thomas, et al., 2006). The weaving is traditionally made using fibres from pandanus crops, which grow locally, and in abundance (Thomas, et al., 2006).

The reliance on local materials means that the woven products are sustainable, but Rosie explains that weaving transcends sustainability, as it is an essential part of their culture. “Weaving is something that the women do on a daily basis, and it’s a part of creative cultural expressions,” said Rosie.

Weaving is a culturally important practice for women in Vanuatu, as weaving skills are passed down from one female generation to another and weaving embodies both cultural heritage and creative identity for the women who practice it (See, for example, Keller, 1998; Phillips & Steiner, 1999; Veikune & Spratt, 2016).

Rosie explains that each woven creation is labour intensive and requires an immense amount of skill, yet women weavers are rarely acknowledged for the practical and creative abilities behind their weaving. “It is important to elevate the weaving, and to elevate those who hold this knowledge base, to make people in Vanuatu recognise how important it is to build women’s skill base,” said Rosie.

Women of Malo Island make pandanus hats. Image by Ruth Choulai – Pacific Trade Invest Australia.

Rosie aims to assist in raising the profile of women weavers so that they can become acknowledged for their skills. Furthermore, Rosie’s skills sharing experience with women weavers has inspired her hat label Pacific Brim. The collection of hats is made in collaboration with regional Pacific communities and includes pieces that were purchased from the women weavers in Vanuatu.

In bringing together the traditional weaving skills of Pacific artists and communities, to create a unique range of lifestyle headwear, Pacific Brim offers fashionable and sustainable products. The collection was launched with the store Strand Hatters last year, and Rosie shares that the process has worked to increase the practical business skills of the women weavers involved, as they have learnt how to export their creations, and about the process of fulfilling orders, product control and buying security.

“Throughout this process, I have been communicating directly between the retailer and the seller, and I am translating between the two cultures, and opening trade pathways that can be used to further their entrepreneurship,” said Rosie.

By assisting women weavers with opportunities for skills development that work to infuse traditional weaving practices with hat making, Rosie has witnessed firsthand how women have tapped into their traditional knowledge to create innovative products that are relevant in the contemporary market. The money that women are receiving for their creations has positive social implications as it is being used for school fees and medical needs, which further highlights the wide-reaching impact that female-led social enterprises have on whole communities.

This intersection of female financial empowerment, social justice and sustainability is an important point to reflect on when we consider the future approaches to sustainability, and the need to promote and support sustainable crafting. This is a major focus of the Sydney Environment Institute’s Sustainable Materialism research area, which explores systems of sustainable living, at a grassroots level and examines the environmental impacts of materiality at pre-and post-production stages.


Bonnemaison, Joel., Kaufmann, Christiain., Huffman, Kirk., and Tyron, Darrell. (eds.). (1996). Arts of Vanuatu. Honolulu: the University of Hawai’I Press.
Bowman, C., Ellis, A., Cutura, J., & Manuel, C. (2009). Women in Vanuatu: Analyzing Challenges to Economic Participation. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications.
Keller, Janet. (1998). Woven World: Neotraditional Symbols of Unity in Vanuatu. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 18(1):1-13.
Macintyre, Martha (2000). ‘Melanesian women and human rights’ (Chapter 7). In Anne-Marie Hilsdon, Martha Macintyre, Vera Mackie, Maila Stevens (eds.), Human Rights and Gender Politics: Asia-Pacific Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge.
Phillips, R. B., & Steiner, C. B. (Eds.). (1999). Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. Berkley & Los Angles: University of California Press.
Thomas, L., Englberger, L., Guarino, L., Thaman, R.R., and Elevitch, C.R. (2006). ‘Pandanus Tectorius’. Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Accessed February 14, 2018. Retrieved from www.traditionaltree.org
Veikune, H., & Spratt, R. (2016). Weaving a New Approach to Improving Student Literacy Outcomes: The Pacific Literacy and School Leadership Programme. Development Bulletin, 8(77): 90-94.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Content Editor & Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.

Rosie Boylan’s lucrative career has been her create hats for theatre and film for almost thirty years with credits to her name including the feature films, The Great Gatsby, Australia, Moulin Rouge and The Piano. These high profile costume collaborations and an extensive body of theatre work have consolidated her reputation as a leading milliner for large-scale industry productions. Rosie has also garnered respect for her couture millinery following collaborations with a number of leading Australian fashion houses, including recent commissions with Sass and Bide and R. M. Williams.

For more information on Rosie and her collections, visit her website.