When the team at Ashburton Museum began planning an exhibition on Tekau Knitwear, there were only a handful of garments and images held in the museum’s collection and archives.
Yet we knew this was an important story to tell. The business was widely known and renowned. Not just in Ashburton – where the business touched the lives of so many factory staff and wearers – but also nationally as the brand was, and remains, well-known throughout the country.
We made a call out for more information, and over the weeks that followed we were amazed by the response. A great variety of garments, stories, and other history items were brought into the museum to help tell the story of Tekau Knitwear and the many people involved with the business.
We were sent anecdotes, garments, advertising material, and more, from people throughout New Zealand. All tell of a much-loved brand and company.
The exhibition that resulted from such a staggering degree of public support was dubbed ‘Tekau: Don’t be Dull’. The title comes from a radio jingle by Tandem Studios, a Christchurch-based recording company that have been creating content since 1974 and are professionals in video, audio and live streaming.
Tandem were just one of the businesses that worked with Tekau over many years.
A bit of history
Whilst Tekau Knitwear had its beginnings in the Ashburton home of Frank and Gladys McIntosh in 1931, it eventually became an important employer of many people, from Oamaru, Timaru, Temuka, to Ashburton, Methven, Rangiora, and Christchurch. At times, there were also showrooms around New Zealand, as well as garments sent overseas.
The business was large and complex, and connected with many other individuals, brands and businesses, within New Zealand and overseas.
From a humble 10 gauge knitting machine (Tekau being Maori for 10) the company grew to a production facility over 30 000 square feet by 1972, in Ashburton alone.
By the early 1970s over 1000 garments were being manufactured each day, and that iconic 10 gauge knitter was now surpassed by state-of-the-art European circular knitters, and other machines.
By this time, the pure wool Tekau used for garments was now complemented by acrylic, and acrylic-wool blends and, increasingly, pure Merino wool. Tekau was the original Icebreaker.
All this productivity required the assistance of many other companies, and extensive networks. Tekau was one of the biggest accounts for Alford Forest Mills, and was probably the first New Zealand company to use Exlan, a specialised acrylic fabric from Japan.
It also sourced wool yarn and fabrics from Alliance Textiles, Woollen Industries in Lower Hutt, and Mosgiel Woollens Ltd.
Each garment also required branding, including swing tags and embroidered labels. Higgins & Co, based in Ashburton, and now known as DPI, and MK Lawson Ltd provided swing tags, sew-in tags and general stationary for Tekau.
Others, such as Corozo, a division of Ackmead Holdings Ltd, and Opti-Lon, supplied buttons, and spiral zippers. From Christchurch, the English Sewing Ltd. and Coates Paton supplied thread, and the Plastic Products Film Company, made printed bags that garments were shipped and sold in.
Over the years, other associated businesses included numerous suppliers, transport companies, brokers, and more, all of whom were associated in some way with the brand.
By Matt Anstey and Tanya Zoe Robinson
- A few examples of Tekau knitwear.
- Alford Forest Mill exterior 1923, shortly before Tekau started.
- Higgins & Co, date unknown.
- Tekau building exterior, before 1972.
- A Mid Canterbury Transport truck, 1970s. The business worked closely with Tekau.
- Bella Moore and Kathleen Glassey (nee Moore) with vintage Tekau garments. Both worked at Tekau.