In My Studio: Noa Blanket Co’s Whakaawa & Josh Te Kani Are Slowing Down

By Leanne Moore
Noa Blanket's Co's designs reflect the environment, culture, family and community. Photo / Supplied

Noa Blanket Co has gained a cult following since it launched in 2022. Leanne Moore catches up with co-founder Whakaawa Te Kani about their new range.

Whakaawa Te Kani is the dynamic creative force behind the luxury wool blanket brand she co-founded with her husband Josh Te Kani in 2022.

While she drives the big ideas that have propelled Noa into the design world, where the blankets have gained an almost cult following since their launch, Whakaawa shares credit for the soulful Noa creations with Josh, who brings his vast knowledge of matauranga Māori to every part of the process.

“We each have our own strengths and that brings a balance to our partnership,” says Whakaawa of their creative chemistry.

“I’m the dream engine. I have a specific vision and an eye for the major design elements of each blanket, then we workshop the details together,” she says. “Josh is a great storyteller, he draws upon our cultural narratives and together we observe and explore our personal experiences to bring a deeper, meaningful context to the design. Our aim is to have an overarching kaupapa [theme] but, as with all creatives, sometimes the story is revealed during the process.”

The demand for their unique made-in-Aotearoa blankets has been strong, with Noa’s first three limited edition collections selling out. The desire to share more of their stories, art and craft with the world led to Limitless: three woven-to-order blanket designs that launch this week. This new direction allows Noa to increase its capacity, by having a range of blankets that will always be available.

What’s the inspiration behind the new Limitless range?

The notion of slowing down, appreciating and celebrating the big and small things in life. Weaving is a slow and deliberate process and this range will be woven to order — an intentional decision that aims to reduce waste and the environmental impact of overproduction, by weaving only what we require.

What’s your studio like?

We work out of Tauranga and our studio is located on Ngāpōtiki tribal land, near some of our major cultural heritage landmarks and sites of significance which hold so many layers of stories — each a reminder of our identity. We’re proud to have genealogical connections to Ngāpōtiki and support a community of people through the lease of our space.

We started Noa from our home office, so moving into an industrial unit has given us a factory floor for packaging and logistics and a design floor for our creative process. It’s the perfect size for our small business.

Noa Blanket Co's Whakaawa Te Kani. Photo / Supplied
Noa Blanket Co's Whakaawa Te Kani. Photo / Supplied

What is it about your work that gets you excited?

It’s uncharted territory with new opportunities and experiences every day. Like any art form — making, creating, crafting — our creativity has no bounds, so we’re always excited about what’s next, to see how we might create and express ourselves as we grow and develop. We’re constantly making new connections, walking through doors that continue to open every day as we weave our story.

Describe your making process.

Our design stories reflect our environment and culture and our family and community, so often our “making process” starts with our core values. Our concepts come together initially in sketches, then we create large inspiration boards, with anything from printed material, photos, textiles, swatches of fabric, garments, decor.

We do some initial graphic work and weaving simulations, then move on to R&D, where we look at colour matching and traditional and modern weave techniques, styles and structures. We weave trials, review and then sample. After some testing, we weave each blanket.

The weaving process starts with New Zealand wool yarn. Once it’s dyed, it’s prepared for our vertical loom. Each blanket is woven then milled, then washed and dried. Each individual blanket is then closely inspected by experts with a lifetime of experience to ensure its quality and enduring integrity.

Our blankets are then finished edged, labelled and shipped to our warehouse where they undergo another inspection before they are wrapped in tissue, packaged in a recyclable box for safekeeping, then delivered to their new homes. It’s a long and considered process that fits our business ethos — that good things take time and care.

Noa Blanket Co’s Whakaawa and Josh Te Kani. Photo / Supplied
Noa Blanket Co’s Whakaawa and Josh Te Kani. Photo / Supplied

What was the biggest hurdle you overcame in the early years?

We’re still in our early years as a business but our biggest challenge has been supply. We’re grateful for the immense demand but weaving is a slow and detailed process. Our focus has been to increase our capability and capacity. Now that we have our own loom, we have more control.

Initially, we used international suppliers for packaging but we’ve brought every step of our making process home and partnered with a local company to produce our recyclable packaging made in New Zealand. We’re very proud to be 100 per cent grown, designed and made here in Aotearoa.

Did you ever seriously consider giving up?

Not a chance. Noa Blanket Co is our long-time dream and something we believe in. That belief in self, in our team, in our quality of work and our ability to keep learning to reach our goals mean too much for us to consider giving up. In saying that, we’re still learning to trust more in ourselves and our vision, to step into this new space with confidence and grace.

Do you have a business mentor?

We have always been self-directed and driven but we do have a network of amazing people who continue to provide insight to our business direction. In business, nothing beats experience and we’ve been fortunate to find a knowledgeable business mentor at Wolf & Fox in Auckland.

We encourage other start-ups to do the same, find someone who is smarter than you, who challenges your thinking and whom you respect as an open ear and wise word of guidance.

A blanket from the new woven-to-order Limitless range. Photo / Supplied
A blanket from the new woven-to-order Limitless range. Photo / Supplied

Any tips for other creatives wanting to launch their own business?

Trust your heart, your first instinct. You know what looks, sounds and feels good. Often your initial reaction is authentic. Go with that!

What self-care strategies do you have in your life?

Having the courage to say no. Self-care is valuing your time and those closest to you, to ensure we carry our roles and responsibilities in balance, sustainably into the future. You can’t give out of an empty vessel.

Our community has for a while been experiencing a shortage of new leaders, and this has normalised overworking and burnout of our young upcoming leaders to fulfil cultural and community obligations.

One of our new designs, Te Kuranui, is an ode to our legacy of illustrious leadership and a nod to its succession being dependent on our ability to discern our own capacity and capability to carry on. We’re learning to define our own success and achieve it, in our own way, at our own pace.

What inspires you?

We’re always inspired by our history, the feats of our forebears are awe-inspiring. So too is the next generation who often display a lot of the history-making attributes of our ancestors. The succession and longevity of these core values are embodied in the ever-present natural environment; its enduring spirit remains a constant inspiration for us.

Biggest life lesson?

Take life slowly; it’s fleeting, and it’s not always promised, so live now. Have goals for the future, but live in the moment, learning from the past. Just as weaving is a slow, deliberate process, we’re learning to live and experience each moment, acknowledging its fullness, realising its full potential to inform our growth.

Noa Blanket Co’s new Limitless range is available from today, June 26, at 6pm.

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