Rosie Boylan’s bespoke hats have featured in glamorous Hollywood films, on fashion runways and magazine covers but she also finds great reward in sharing her skills with Pacific island communities.

Over the past several years the Sydney-based milliner has been working with disadvantaged women in rural areas of Vanuatu to build their business skills and improve the products they can sell.

“They’re brilliant weavers and make the most wonderful bags and mats which are part of their tradition,” Ms Boylan said.

She is now encouraging them to adapt their existing skills to create handwoven pandanus hats and expand their opportunities for distribution.

“I think it’s about them building their confidence to step into the marketplace and be seen, for their work to be valued, and for them to be economically independent,” she said.

“For me in this stage of my career it’s about sharing my skills and I really enjoy the cross-cultural approach.”

Ms Boylan is currently working under the Vanuatu Skills Partnership, a joint-initiative supported by the Australian and Vanuatu governments.

Aided by colonial-era technology

To improve and speed up the hat-making process, Ms Boylan introduced the women to a replica colonial-era tool she came across during her research into traditional weaving.

It consists of a wooden handle with a set of short, sharp metal blades at the end.

When dragged, it greatly speeds up the process of shredding leaves into strips of consistent widths.

The original device on which it was modelled was discovered underneath floorboards during archaeological diggings at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in the early 1980s.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind tool,” the curator of Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Dr Fiona Starr, said.

She believed the shredder was once used by convict settlers who were known to have made wide-brimmed hats out of cabbage tree palm leaves.

“On first glance you’d have to think about what it’s used for, but once you know a little bit about the process of preparing the leaves for hat making, then it makes sense.”

Historical records from 1844 show the convicts sold their hats to other detainees and free settlers, an act that was prohibited by authorities.


Cross-cultural exchange

With long-held traditional production methods already in use, Ms Boylan said the women were initially hesitant to use the leaf shredder but they’re now seeing its benefits.

“They are just finally picking up on it and enjoying using and finding that it’s speeding up their work,” she said.

Most importantly, Ms Boylan is helping the women create a consistent range of products and achieve a fair pricing structure.

When completed, the hats are sold domestically in the marketplaces of Luganville and Port Vila.

“I think the Ni-Vans (Vanuatu nationals) and the tourist population like them too because it’s a ‘Made in Vanuatu’ product,” she said.

One group of weavers received a large order to provide hats for the Pacific Games hosted in Vanuatu during 2017.

Locally made goods have even attracted the eye of British royalty.


Economic empowerment

Returning to Sydney, Ms Boylan also distributes the hats to a shopfront retailer in the city centre.

She has since launched the brand Pacific Brim, a name which relates to her work with women from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.

The collaboration is a way of getting the regionally sourced, sustainable products to a wider market and increasing the profits that flow back to the women and their communities.

“It’s opening a pathway of trade for these women so they can get an understanding of the protocols of export and biosecurity and an order that’s more than just selling one hat,” she said.

Ms Boylan said she hoped the women would one day independently take on the manufacturing, selling and distribution to reach an international market.

“I fully believe they have the capacity to be setting up their businesses, managing that and selling direct from Vanuatu.”