Where there’s wool, there’s a way

If Viv Tamblyn is on edge, and right now she’s a little, then that’s probably appropriate.

Gore’s teacher’s assistant is also an off-duty fashion designer who has long caused a stir with her widely acclaimed designs, cheering the possibilities and liberations of wool.

She’s feeling a bit stressed at the moment. The Hokonui Fashion Design Awards, where she has shone for almost two decades, is at the end of next month, she has a semi-finished dress to finish and Covid has gotten her.

It’s not ideal. She works with wool, under tension. Right there you have the original purpose of the actual stretching hooks, which have been used on stretchers, called stretchers, to make woolen fabrics since the 14th century.

Tamblyn herself can be forgiven for feeling a little tense, but centuries of experience have shown that tension has a purpose.

2016 Mother and Daughter Hokonui Award winner Andre Johnston, left with her awards for Excellence and Nightlife, and her mother Viv Tamblyn with the Heather Paterson QSM Memorial Best Southland Designer and Machine Knitted Award.

Robyn Edie/Stuff

2016 Hokonui Prize mother and daughter Andre Johnston, left, with their awards for Excellence and Nightlife, and her mother Viv Tamblyn with the Heather Paterson QSM Memorial Best Southland Designer and Machine Knitted Award.

Tamblyn’s admirers, who are certainly legion in the South, have long wondered why she didn’t turn pro.

Their daughter Andre Johnston has a degree in fashion and design and has also proved to be a designer of interest. The proud mum has followed her successes on the catwalks of several New Zealand Fashion Weeks.

So professionalism is something she and Andre have thought about over the years.

“We’ve seen a lot of talented designers come and go,” she says, “even those with financial backing, and I guess that put us off a bit.”

Then there is the added factor of competing with online shipping.

So far, the timing has never seemed right.

Nevertheless, circumstances change. “Don’t shut us out – you never know what the future will bring.”

And it’s hardly like their passion feels unrewarded.

“I love what I do. I love the challenge of creating something original while learning new techniques.”

Look, she adds, it’s pretty stress free.

Except for months like this.

The Best Use of Wool award at the 2021 Hokonui Fashion and Design Awards.


The Best Use of Wool award at the 2021 Hokonui Fashion and Design Awards.

Working as a teaching assistant at St Peters College has its own satisfactions, but means that her design work takes up much of her time before school, after school, late nights and weekends.

But then it’s just exciting to see her pieces in motion, “strutting down the runway.”


“Endless. This year I broke several sewing machine needles due to the thickness of my work and I used a knife to cut a hole in my fabric.”

She’d rather not elaborate, other than to say, “The brain doesn’t work well when you’re panicking.”

Tamblyn has always loved to sew, which is a good thing because when she was a teenager, there were no size 8’s in stores.

She is self-taught, but this girl of hers has been winning design awards since 1998 and following her daughter’s successes, traveling with her to major events led to an addictive shared spirit which in turn, and with Andre’s encouragement, led her to design.

Her first appearance at the Hokonui Awards was in 2003 and she was a finalist in the wool section with, well, ok, technically it was a brown jumpsuit. It reached the wool division final, although a judge said the piece had too much to offer.

She didn’t rejoin until 2007. But no reproach on your part.

“I learned a lot from this judge. Less is best.”

Ah, but isn’t there a school of thought that some pursuits like singing, cooking and dancing – certainly fashion – are essentially aesthetic and can’t really be turned into competitions where points are awarded?

Tamblyn doesn’t see it as a case of either giving up individuality or being deaf to the views of others.

“Designing and creating a garment is very personal and you have to learn to accept criticism while remaining true to yourself as a designer.”

you evolve You gain trust. You strive for perfection.

St. Peter's College Gore student Lucy Swain wears Viv Tamblyn's winning entry in the streetwear open section for the 2019 Hokonui Awards.

John Hawkins/stuff

St. Peter’s College Gore student Lucy Swain wears Viv Tamblyn’s winning entry in the streetwear open section for the 2019 Hokonui Awards.

That doesn’t mean she’s resolutely looking for inspiration. If anything, it tends to jump on them.

“Motivation is never an issue. I have so many designs stored in the memory bank – time is the issue.”

Inspiration can come from a specific fabric or stitch, and she’s not afraid of symbolism.

Last year her nightlife entry featured bathroom tiles in the shape of a large cross. Actually a tribute to her late father. Her open streetwear win in 2019, “We are One,” celebrated diversity, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cited as countering the Christchurch mosque attacker’s sour agenda.

The piece broke traditional design rules to show diversity.

“Is this an art form? Possibly. There is a fine line between “fashion” as we know it and the transition to the avant-garde.”

This year, Hokonui Fashion and Design Awards officials have visited schools in the South to encourage participants and offer a mentoring program next year.

Tamblyn agrees powerfully.

“My advice to novice designers would be: try it, strive for originality and make the inside of your garments as good as the outside.”

Winner 2013 in the machine knitting category


Winner 2013 in the machine knitting category

Most of their clothes are 100% wool because?

“Wool is fabulous! Such a beautiful fabric in all its forms.”

She is inspired by 3D fashion and working with wool allows her to explore and experiment with different techniques and textures in yarn or fabric.

Somewhere out there, the late Mayor of Gore, Gabriel Farry, would be beaming. As the owner of the city’s long-famous department store, he was a fervent advocate of wool. And Farry’s would only sell one high-end fashion piece from a single line for fear that two of Gore’s well-dressed women would cross paths in the same outfit.

Designed by Gore's Viv Tamblyn, this outfit was a 2012 Open Menswear Award and Machine Knitted Award winner.

Nicole Gourley/Stuff

Designed by Gore’s Viv Tamblyn, this outfit was a 2012 Open Menswear Award and Machine Knitted Award winner.

Farry proclaimed the combination of warmth when needed and coolness when desired. His heritage was Lebanese and he wore fine woolen wool comfortably on his travels in the Middle East. All of this meant he lamented the rise of synthetics and the decline of wool well and badly.

For her part, Tamblyn is looking ahead positively.

Wool could be encouraged even more, she believes, but its merits are unassailable.

“I think it’s almost come full circle and many designers have incorporated hand-knit wool jerseys. So lovely to wear and very warm.”

She enjoys both crocheting and knitting, but wouldn’t call herself experienced even now. And she hardly ever uses a pattern.

“I just make it up as I go along. Sometimes it works, but I’ve had my share of failures.”

A winning entry in Hokonui's 2017 Open Streetwear section.

Robyn Edie/Stuff

A winning entry in Hokonui’s 2017 Open Streetwear section.

Does it happen that she walks past a well-dressed woman on the street and feels the urge to rethink and correct the ensemble?

“I definitely admire a well-dressed woman, no matter what her size. We all have different tastes and styles and I believe in showing your individuality.

“Taking risks! I know what I like, and I learned to go with your gut a long time ago.”

Maybe it’s just an afterthought, but honesty forces her to acknowledge that tolerances in the privacy of her home have their limits.

“I comment on the news and weather presenters if they don’t like the outfit.”

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