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Tania Irons.

The Central Otago woman who turns wool into award-winning designs

When Tania Irons moved to the country, it was only natural she’d pick up her knitting needles.

Colour, texture and inspiration assault Tania Irons from every side at her big-sky Central Otago home. Knitting is art to Irons, an award-winning wool-fashion designer who’s embraced a move to rural life on a lifestyle block near Becks, where she produces a constant flow of dresses, jerseys, toys, scarves and hats.

Born and raised in the deep south, Irons spent 15 years copywriting for radio and regional television, and then the lively Mountain Scene newspaper in Queenstown. Five years ago, she and husband Kevin decided to escape the bustle, but their search for an affordable house to buy pushed them further and further into the backblocks.

“I’m a total townie, so I was well out of my comfort zone,” she says. “But I found the people out here amazing. Artists, poets, designers… Grahame Sydney biked past one day, stopped when he saw my pigs and dropped some apples off for them a few days later. And Friday night at the pub, no one looked twice at me sitting there knitting woollen grass for the dress I was making.”

Tania Irons down on the farm.

As a child, Irons taught herself to knit from a Ladybird book, and her ongoing passion for wool has eased their late-in-life transition to country living – epitomised, she says, by getting her first pet lamb at the age of 42. Kevin shears their small flock of sheep, but their pigs are the only ones currently benefitting from the wool, as bedding.

The couple (who also have four chickens, two terriers and a Maine Coone cat) intend to learn the skills for self-sufficiency in the wool-supply department, to offset the often outrageous price of buying by the ball. Irons’ mother and grandmother were traditional Aran knitters and gave little encouragement to her fairly hapless early efforts. It was a rare gem of wisdom from Granny, however – to make things as beautiful on the inside as the outside – that helped her net a major design prize last year.

Alexandra-based knitting legend Daphne Randle, who Irons met through a mutual friend, reinforced that piece of advice and encouraged her to experiment, leading to her incorporating distinct elements of Central Otago’s raw but lovely landscape in her bold, quirky knits.

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The dress that won the novice section in last year’s WoolOn awards.

Randle also supplied the necessary impetus for Irons to enter the most recent WoolOn Creative Fashion Event, a volunteer-run institution that’s showcased creativity in wool, in one form or another, for the past 60 years. The breaking of a relentless drought, which turned brown hills into a lush carpet of green, was the inspiration behind her entry, a wool dress entitled “Let it Rain”.

As elegant gown after elegant gown sashayed down the runway on awards night, Irons squirmed in her seat, worrying her whimsical creation may have missed the memo on style. “When they announced it had won the novice [category], it was surreal.”

The next WoolOn event will be held 14-15 August 2020 – and images of fluffy snow and shadowy Central Otago hills are already taking shape on Irons’ busy needles.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.