How We Started a Sustainable
Blankets and Scarves Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Emma the co-founder of The Tartan Blanket Co which I started in 2014 with my husband Fergus. We design and produce blankets, scarves and baby blankets made from sustainable wool and cashmere with a commitment to having a positive impact on both people and the planet.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Having both studied at Edinburgh University it wasn’t until our graduation night that Fergus and myself actually met. After dating for only a few months we set off travelling together and then returned home and moved down to London where I pursued my dream career as a fashion buyer.
By 2014, we had been living in London for a few years but our hearts were still firmly back in our home town of Edinburgh. At the time I was working as a buyer for a large retailer and Fergus was remotely running his highland wear business. We spent many nights talking about our dreams to start our own business and what that might look like.
Following our wedding, we decided to take a big risk and make another huge commitment to each other, to start our own business together! As they say, ‘in for a penny in for a pound’! So we packed up our London life and headed back up north ready to start our new chapter.
With Fergus’s background in business background in fashion buying and merchandising, we saw an opportunity to bring a modern approach to one of our favourite Scottish products: the tartan blanket. Traditional Scottish tartan blankets are made of wool or cashmere which means they are all natural and fully sustainable, which felt really important to focus on, especially in today’s world of fast fashion and disposable products.
We wanted to take this sustainability element even further and travelled the world looking for mills in line with our ethics to join us in our vision of traditional Scottish goods with a contemporary edge. We loved this idea of sharing the warmth of a wool blanket the way you would share a hug or a cup of tea with loved ones and wanted to explore how we could do this in a modern, beautiful way.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
One of the biggest challenges we faced when we started was to fully understand the process that went into manufacturing woollen blankets. There are so many elements you need to consider from where the wool is sourced and the conditions those animals are kept in, to the dying, spinning, weaving and finishing process.
We first started exploring Scottish and UK mills. But we soon realised that these mills were not always the most sustainable or transparent. Often wool would be imported from countries where farms did not always have great animal welfare policies and tracing the exact farms the wool came from was impossible. This led us on a big adventure around the world learning a huge amount about the process of wool and blanket production and how countries differed in their processes and policies. After exploring many different production options, we settled on two main partnerships in India and Inner Mongolia.
After years of nourishment and growth, they have now become an elemental part of our journey and The Tartan Blanket Co. family. Our partner mill in India is run by a family team, who uses 100% recycled materials and supports a community of women who hand finish all of our recycled wool blankets, creating much needed jobs and giving each blanket a personal, unique finish.
Our other partner mill is a family business based in Inner Mongolia who uses traditional, people-led farming methods, putting the animals’ welfare first. They also work with local dyers, spinners, weavers and finishers, which supports the village community and maintains end-to-end production transparency and control. Due to their climate and farming methods, this area is known for having the softest lambswool and cashmere worldwide and allowed us to expand our range into the most beautifully gentle scarves and baby blankets.
Taking this step to no longer work with the traditional Scottish mills has been a huge leap for us, as our customers love the Scottish background of our brand and products. Although all our products are still designed and sent from our studio in Edinburgh, the accountability we felt as a company for producing our products in the most sustainable and transparent way was too important to sacrifice for tradition. We are so proud of everything we produce and all our partners involved that although it has been a challenge, it feels so worthwhile.
Who is your target market?
Our biggest market right now is direct to consumers via our retail website The Tartan Blanket Co. However, we have a significantly growing number of carefully selected wholesale partners who include Liberty of London and also corporate clients buying gifts for staff or press events who include google, facebook, Talisker and a number of boutique hotels.
In terms of our customers themselves, I think we focus less on demographics and more on psychographics so our customers’ motivations, feelings and interests. Although we speak to those who are interested in interior design and making a home both stylish and comfortable, we also have a huge market for our scarves which are both incredibly warm and a versatile fashion accessory and our baby blankets are also now a hugely popular newborn gift.
However, our biggest growth area has been with our gifting market. I think with the world we currently live in being so uncertain and people wanting to show love from afar, our blankets have been a way for people to send a hug in a box to those they can’t hug in real life. We also now sell a huge range of gift boxes where people can send a blanket, baby blanket or scarf with a selection of treats, to be able share warmth with loved ones for any occasion.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
As a primarily on-line business, we focus most of our marketing effort in the digital areas of Adwords, Social ads and most recently digital trade fairs. However, some of our biggest successes have come from elevating our beautiful photography in magazines and other platforms. Also connecting to our customer base with relevant and engaging content in our emails has been hugely important and impactful for us.
A great way we have found to reach new customers and build excitement and fun into our ranges (and in the office), has been through our collaborations. Last year we did our first one with stylist Anna Cascarina, with another exciting one lined up this year and a few more in the pipeline.
Lastly, I think building trust with your customers is so important and we are incredibly proud to have both wonderful customers, as well as an amazing customer happiness team. The result of which is a huge number of positive reviews, which I think you cannot underestimate the value of, as it’s one of the first things a new customer will look at before purchasing!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
I think we have found success from creating a community feeling with our customers, which is warm, kind and inclusive. Some brands focus on being exclusive, but I think that the world is moving away from this mentality and we are seeing people demanding more accountability and inclusivity from brands.
The more you share with customers about who you are and what you do, the more they will come on the journey with you. We try and do this through informative and creative videos, emails and content on our social media channels. We also try and ensure that we are offering content that will inspire and engage with our customers, so we are careful to not just throw out information to everyone, but tailor it to our customers’ interests.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
We are a very creative and dynamic team of 24 and growing. Previously we all worked in our large Edinburgh studio together from our warehouse team to our photographers and designers and it was like a big family, with huge hourly tea runs and weekly birthday celebrations. However, now most of the team is working remotely.
It has been a big change and we have had to work hard to keep the same positive and cohesive dynamic. We are lucky Fergus is great at exploring new systems to ensure we are all working productively together on projects such as ClickUp which has been hugely beneficial in the last few months. Also to keep the team family dynamic present we have tried to find ways to share experiences together, apart, such as sending the team a cocktail box so we could have Friday night drinks together.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
As I mentioned Fergus is our systems guru and is always looking for new, improved tools to use. Right now we regularly use ClickUp for managing tasks, Missive for our emails and Float for cash flow, to name just a few!
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Sustainable success does not happen overnight. You need to put the work into every element of a business before you have the business you are truly happy with and this takes time. Growing slowly and sustainably is not a bad thing, it allows you to make mistakes on a small scale so you don’t make them on a bigger scale later on when it could cripple you.
We have never taken investment but grown organically which has meant although things have taken longer we have been able to make the right calls for us and our business without outside pressure. With bigger numbers come bigger risks, bigger pressures and often bigger headaches.
The most important thing we have learned is to focus on our personal happiness and doing something we are proud of and can have a positive impact on others and the planet. As all the money in the world cannot buy you happiness!
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I love that no two days are the same and you can literally do anything you want, the only one constraining you is yourself. Some days are a bit tough and it can be scary at times, especially with a growing number of employees who depend on you.
However, especially over the last few months, I have realised that the part I love most about running a business is the fact that you can take a problem and think creatively about how to solve it and pivot out of the tough times. I have always loved problem-solving since I was a child and running a business is like one giant problem-solving game, with many different paths you can take.
I also love working with a team of super creative and inspiring people who bring new ideas to the table every day. Hiring people who are better at what they do than I could ever be, allows me to focus on our bigger strategy goals, keeping all the departments working together and solving the daily problems that arise.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Between our young family and work there isn’t a lot of time for friends and hobbies. However, I have to say in my spare time (which is rare) I generally end up working because it is my favourite pastime. Although I am finding the benefits from having hobbies and sports which give me some headspace to think creatively and switch off from the endless to-do lists.
Running a business does dominate your life, so you do really have to love it, which luckily we do!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I love ‘How I Built This’ with Guy Raz, who interviews founders on their business stories. One of my all-time favourites on this was the interview with Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia. I also really like Couriers’ weekly and workshop podcasts and Holly & Co’s Conversations of Inspiration.
I feel really inspired and motivated listening to other founders’ stories, as it makes me realise that even the most successful business owners have faced similar challenges we might be going through and helps me to think about different ways we can overcome these. They also give very different perspectives and ideas which can be so useful in how we view our business and what direction we want to take it in, even if the companies they feature are in very different sectors.
I find there is no one way or right answer and it is so important to find a way which works for you. This may mean doing something completely different from what is already being done or disrupting a market completely, which makes you completely unique and becomes your competitive advantage.
When we started The Tartan Blanket Co. all our competitors were focussing on the best quality virgin wool and being ‘made in the UK’. So when we came along working with suppliers in India and Mongolia and focussing on sustainable, recycled and naturally farmed wool blankets this was a bit of risk but set us apart from everyone else.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
I think for us we are keen to keep growing sustainably. We don’t want to sacrifice the brand, our partnerships or our happiness to grow at all costs. However, I think with the success we are currently experiencing we would hope to be around a £5 million business and be contributing £100,000 a year to helping people and the planet, which would feel like a huge achievement and milestone for us.