Whakaawa and Josh Te Kani are founders of the first Māori-owned luxury blanket co, Noa

Launched in December to such acclaim that every last item in their first collection was snapped up within 24 hours, new business Noa Blanket Co arose from its founders’ desire to be surrounded by their culture in their everyday existence, retell the stories of who they are and express themselves in a fabric that’s also part of Aotearoa’s story — wool. Having been the grateful recipients of taonga themselves, they wanted to create something that allows others to experience giving or receiving something precious and timeless. Just a few months after their debut, Whakaawa Te Kani (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Kahungunu) told us how she and husband Josh (Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) are defining their own success while working on their dream.

ABOVE Whakaawa and Josh’s values and that of their tūpuna/ancestors are of the utmost importance to their enterprise. “Our ancestral values described in the stories associated with our designs hold a historic blueprint of success and a bearing for the future,” she says. “We value the wisdom of our tūpuna and acknowledge it’s an inherent gift.” The colours they select for their blankets (TOP) tell tales too. “There’s so much power in colour,” says Whakaawa. “It reflects our environment and has the ability to make us feel a certain way, lifting our spirits or triggering a memory of a person or event. We’ve been learning all about the process of weaving, the many different weave structures and how different colour combinations can work — or not. All of our colours are chosen to enhance the designs and symbolism that carry the stories woven into each blanket.”

So Whakaawa, where’s your HQ? We’re currently based at our home in Tauranga, which we built on ancestral land. Josh’s grandparents left a legacy providing space for their descendants to remain grounded in their identity. This is something we cherish deeply and reiterates our purpose at Noa Blanket Co — to share stories that strengthen our connection with people and place. 

Each of Noa’s luxurious blankets is inspired by a different Māori creative practice and Aotearoa’s collective stories, and as such they’re more than just blankets — they’re symbolic taonga and artworks too… Noa blankets tell our stories and share them with the world. They’re a reflection of old, an expression of now and a vision of the future woven in pure New Zealand wool. We want them to make people feel connected, and to help restore our belief in ourselves and each other, while celebrating our uniqueness and commemorating our shared values.

How does your and Josh’s design process play out? I think of my late uncle, Professor Piri Sciascia ONZM, who said, “He toi whakairo he mana tangata/Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity”. We aim to embody this phrase in all we do. With traditional weaving, the kaupapa [purpose] is described in the main body of our work, so in this case it’s our main theme that informs each individual design and the entire collection. Observations of the past, our family and community, and our natural environment and its seasonal teachings and experiences all inform our kaupapa.
Josh and I are grateful to be able to collaborate and grow together in a creative space, and at times we’re each other’s best advisor and worst critic. Our skills and attributes complement each other, so I haven’t yet had to pull rank over colour swatches!

Are you planning to collaborate with other artists? If part of our kaupapa is to sustain the intergenerational transmission of our knowledge, stories, language, art and culture, what better way to do so than to collaborate with artists and initiatives that share our common cause? We’re excited for the collaborations to come, as there are so many stories to tell and weave together.

ABOVE When asked about the good she thinks can come of sharing narratives through craft in this way, Whakaawa says, “Knowing who we are and how we connect to people and places strengthens our sense of belonging and creates a safe space that encourages growth. This self-knowledge also keeps us grounded and instills a deep respect for the relationships that sustain us, promoting a spirit of reciprocity and interdependence with each other and our natural environment.” For her, the best thing about Noa “is seeing our culture, our art and stories being shared in a medium that’s traditional yet exciting, innovative and contemporary. We’ve created a tangible expression of our identity and a treasure to embellish our homes. We love how they make people feel proud of our uniqueness.”

Your wool is processed in Pōneke/Wellington, then the blankets are manufactured in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. How did you choose your production partners? We’re fortunate to have partnered with Inter-weave in Tāmaki Makaurau, who have a long-standing relationship with Woolyarns in Pōneke, who process our wool. The knowledge and technology at both companies is nothing short of world class. The experience they have in working with wool is what drew us to them, and their commitment to the environment and support of our local economy is something we’re proud to be part of. 

These beauties are limited-edition, so already hugely sought after. What’s it like to be in hot demand? The success of our first collection was very humbling and we’re forever grateful for the immense grace that has been extended to us in this beginning season. It’s been heart-warming to see the uptake of our kaupapa [project] and the tremendous amount of support for our vision. Now we’re excited to launch our next collection, which will coincide with Matariki, a fitting time to inspire us as we greet this new phase of growth and celebrate our nation’s new public holiday.

Have you had the chance to see any of your blankets in their new homes? I imagine that for anyone who has a dream, seeing it manifest into reality is surreal. Our dream was to wrap people up in the stories that acknowledge our relationships with each other and the world around us, and I love seeing how our blankets are used to acknowledge those relationships. Whether gifted, used in ceremony or simply adorning a bed or couch, they’re a reminder of who we are and how we’re linked that normalises our culture and celebrates the treasures therein.

Words Philippa Prentice
Photography Claire Mossong

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