Ilse Amalie Mathilde Henneberg was born in Giessen, Germany, on 12 June 1901, the second of three daughters born to Bruno Paul Eduard Henneberg, a university professor, and his wife, Helene Mathilde Fritze. Her parents were active in the cultural life of the community and Ilse grew up aware of recent developments in the arts and sciences. In 1917 she enrolled at the Berbenich art school in Darmstadt. She studied there until 1919 when, as a result of changed financial circumstances brought on by German economic collapse, she returned home. In order to support herself Henneberg took up an appointment as a medical illustrator at Giessen university.
In 1927 she accepted a post as a laboratory technician at T’ung-Chi university, a German-language institution at Woosung (Wusong) outside Shanghai. On 31 March 1935 at Shanghai she married Elgar Armin von Randow, German vice consul to Shanghai, with whom she had two sons. They were in Shanghai when the Americans bombed the city in July 1945. The Randows divorced about this time.
Ilse’s mother had given her a loom and taught her to weave, and now, with two sons to support, she put her skills to practice. She was soon designing woven fabrics for a number of Shanghai-based textile companies. However, when the communists took over Shanghai in 1949, the weaver and her two sons sought refugee status in New Zealand. They arrived in Auckland in April 1952. The tall, thin, silver-haired German woman was 50 years old.
Over the next decade Ilse von Randow would become a central figure in the development of modernist craft weaving in New Zealand. Her hand-woven textiles were quickly taken up by the local avant-garde and in 1952 she was awarded the Esmonde Kohn Prize for excellence in the applied arts by the Auckland Society of Arts. Soon she was invited to establish a studio at the Auckland City Art Gallery.
From her studio in the gallery tower Randow taught a number of young weavers, including Zena Abbott and Adele Brandt, and she taught and demonstrated weaving at the summer schools run by the gallery and at the Auckland Festival. In 1954 Randow helped to establish the Handweavers’ Guild and was appointed its first vice president. She also began preparing for an exhibition with potter Len Castle. For this exhibition, held at the Auckland City Art Gallery in September 1954, Randow completed a number of important works, including ‘Kauri’, with Colin McCahon, and ‘Fertility’, with expatriate Dutch artist Jan Michels.
Later that year she took up residence in a Blockhouse Bay house designed for her by a Group Architects member, Bill Wilson. She began to specialise in large-scale wall hangings and in 1958 designed and wove the Auckland City Art Gallery curtain, one of the largest works of hand weaving completed in New Zealand to that date.
In 1960 Randow travelled to Finland to study weaving. In the early 1960s she and spinner and dyer Catherine Mitchell became involved with the Waiheke Hand Spinners and Weavers, who planned to establish a home-based weaving industry on the island. The industry failed to materialise and by 1965 Randow found herself increasingly at odds with what she saw as the anti-modernist stance of many New Zealand weavers. She left for London in 1966, eventually settling in West Mersea, Essex. At this time she retired from weaving, turning instead to batik, and later, painting.
Ilse von Randow returned to New Zealand in 1992. In 1998 a retrospective of her works was held at the Auckland Museum, to which she donated her workbooks and collection of weaving samples documenting her entire career. She died in Auckland on 18 October 1998.