Married couple and business partners, Whakaawa (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Kahungunu iwi, or tribe) and Joshua Te Kani (Tauranga Moana iwi), were born and bred in Tauranga, a pretty harbourside town in Te Moana-a- Toi Bay of Plenty, located about three hours south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. “We’re very fortunate to have had the upbringing we’ve had,” says Whakaawa. “[We’ve had] a whole heap of value poured into our lives through our culture and knowledge of identity.”
That cultural identity is paramount in the couple’s business, Noa Blanket Co., which offers a range of premium, 100% wool blankets woven in homage to Māori ancestry and traditional knowledge. While the blankets themselves tell an important part of the heritage story in Aotearoa New Zealand – wool was integrated into traditional Māori weaving after European arrival, and blankets were used in early trading – it’s also a vehicle for the couple to share their own beliefs. “With Noa Blanket Co, we’ve tried to describe our Māori values in a way everyone and anybody can take up,” says Joshua. At Noa value is Ko Au, Ko te Taiao, valuing our relationships with the environment. They pull on this thread in their blanket designs, depicting collective guardianship stories encouraging connectedness with people and place.
Deep family traditions
Noa Blanket Co. is informed by a deep family history of working with wool. “We’ve got a history of shearing, working in shearing gangs and running sheep stations,” says Whakaawa. Crafting their luxury blankets begins at the sheep farm. “We source from over 13 farms,” says Joshua. “The wool is shorn, cleaned and spun into various grades of yarn which, after colouring, are used for weaving and vary depending on the style of the blanket.” Noa’s traditional flagship blanket is soft-brushed and raised, while the heavier Broad blanket is designed for outside use. Each blanket takes 2-3 weeks to make, from dying the yarn to labelling. Spun at Woolyarns in Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington and then woven in a local mill in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Noa blankets are sent out by the couple themselves from their homebase in Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty.
Inspiration at home
Whakaawa and Joshua’s designs are deeply inspired by the beautiful surrounds of Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty and its dramatic coastal scenery. “The landscape stretches inland to deep green lush forests, freshwater and waterfalls to our local Mount Maunganui beach,” says Joshua. Noa’s blanket designs and yarn colours are designed to reflect Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty seasons, locations, plants and trees. “The golds and yellows in some of our textiles reflect the beautiful pīngao plant, a long-leaf fibrous material that grows along the sand dunes,” says Joshua. The red of blooming pohutukawa trees in summer has also been woven into their pieces. “There is no shortage of design inspiration in the local landscape.”
Beyond visual inspiration, the prominent sites of significance to Māori also makes Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty a remarkable spot for the couple. “There are many layers in Tauranga Moana, such as historical sites of significance and heritage space,” says Joshua. “Lots of traditional stories to learn and physical places to stand on and be in.” A special spot is the historic reserve of Mauao in the suburb of Mount Maunganui, Tauranga. Mauao, which means “caught by the morning light,” is an extinct volcano that looms over the northern tip of the city, and features a 232-metre-high summit walk peppered with wayfinding signage and cultural touchpoints that share the stories and history of the area.
Whakaawa says Ōtanewainuku, a mountain and scenic reserve about 20 kilometres south of Tauranga, is one of her favourite spots to draw inspiration from in the region. “You feel like it’s just you in that beautiful world, and it’s not too far out of town,” she says. There are several family-friendly walking trails at Ōtanewainuku, including a one-hour Whataroa Falls track, where waterfalls, a swimming hole and a picnic spot greet you at the end of a forest walk.
Joshua takes all visitors straight to Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market, a local institution started by the celebrated “Kaimoana king” and Māori businessman Bobby Palmers, who passed away in 2022, but whose community legacy lives on. “Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market do us proud when they put the people of the sea on a plate or in a paper-wrapped-up bag,” he says.
For an evening out, Joshua heads to Fife Lane in Mount Maunganui for its signature steak meals. “You can see the chefs working on a large brazier furnace in the restaurant,” he says. He usually can’t go past a Southland farm steak but also applauds the Wagyu. “I always opt for their truffle butter side.”
Whakaawa likes to head to the Papamoa end of Mount Maunganui for her morning coffee. “We tend to find ourselves on Papamoa Beach Road heading towards Mount Maunganui,” she says. “There are great restaurants and cafes on that strip.” She likes Pearl Kitchen on Coast Boulevard, where the menu boasts dishes like Lobster risotto, crab and corn croquette with lemon butter sauce; coffee comes from New Zealand-owned Roastery Organico.
Beyond the city distractions, Joshua always returns to the sites of significance in Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty, particularly Mauao Mount Maunganui and its ocean connection. Whakaawa agrees. “Down at Mauao, you’ve got Pilot Bay, which is usually nice and calm,” she says. “There’ll be waka ama, stand-up paddleboarding, sailing and kayaking.” On the other side of Pilot Bay, just two blocks away, you’ll find a long stretch of white beach with a pumping surf. “There are so many different things to do at the moana there, the ocean,” she says. “I think that’s cool. I love that.”
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