How An Orphan Lamb Helped Me Start A Slow Fashion Brand

Jason Lancaster of WELAN, talks to us about how he co-founded a circular fashion brand after adopting sheep on a Scottish island.

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Designing and making simple but beautiful wool hats, each with a story, has been a journey of discovery for both of us, especially because this was never part of any plan.

We’re Jason and Yvonne, the co-founders of WELAN, an ethical start-up doing its bit to make fashion sustainable.

We believe our core values of ‘profit with purpose’ in concert with design and production, from our Scottish Island home, enables people to balance their buying decisions with their social, environmental and political convictions.

Our design language is inspired by our flock of rescued orphan sheep, our environment, and striving for constant improvement of our supply chain.

A supply chain that we measure in feet and inches from our studio door to our field of sheep.

For both of us it’s about wool hats that look good, feel good, and more importantly, do good.

In October of 2018 we listened to our gut, took a leap of faith and just did it.

The result: we moved from London to a small Scottish island called Tiree, the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides.

An island paradise, unexpected in every way. 24 sandy beaches, year round turquoise waters and unexpectedly warm winters.

The idea was for both of us to focus on photography and slow down, we called it active retirement.

Two years on and our daily lives are far removed from life in London, or a life of photography and slowing down.

We founded WELAN, which only exists because of a cup of tea and 13 rescued orphaned sheep.

Image WELAN uses the orphan flock of sheep’s wool to make low impact hats

Before our sheep and wool filled lives on Tiree we were the typical cliché – working in the city of London, spending our days heading to client meetings, juggling time, fighting congestion and battling ever shrinking deadlines, all on repeat day in and day out.

How things have changed.

However, it turned out moving to a small Scottish island in the Atlantic was not the biggest change to take place in our lives.

Everything we’re creating and making at WELAN is thanks to a chance conversation over a cup of tea with a crofter neighbour back in April 2019.

“We founded WELAN, which only exists because of a cup of tea and 13 rescued orphaned sheep”

A life changing cup of tea

To give you some context, crofting is unique to Scotland, I’d describe a croft as a small scale farm, almost micro agriculture. In the main, worked on and passed down by each generation.

During our life changing cup of tea, we learnt that every year a number of new born lambs are rejected by their mothers.

Rejection can happen for a myriad of reasons out of a crofter’s control. Orphaned lambs need special care, round the clock feeding and attention or they just won’t survive. Caring for one orphaned lamb is challenging add to that running a small farm and possibly a second or even third job, and things become difficult. Imagine 10 or 15 orphaned lambs and the stress levels for all concerned.

So when asked if we would like to help out there was only one answer, YES!

With that simple three letter word everything changed.

We were the new parents to two orphan lambs: Bubble and Nori. Somehow two orphan lambs became seven – in the space of a week – which, it turns out, is basically the start of a flock.

Image You can’t get much more local than making hats from sheep in your garden

It really is very hard to say no to a helpless orphaned lamb. Almost two year later we now have a little flock of 13 orphan sheep who, to be honest, probably think they are little fluffy humans.

The flock

The original orphaned lambs Noah, Bubble, Dot, Matrix, Kelp, Nori, Popcorn were joined in 2020 by: Rocky, Adrian, Athena, Jeff, Serg and Pepper. Each of our sheep just seem to suit their name. Rocky is a great example.

He was given his name because he came to us on death’s door, hours to live, very weak, not given much chance of survival. But he’s a fighter, who with a little help from us is fighting fit today 10 months on.

Each of our sheep has their own personality.

They come running when they see us, and that’s without bribing them with food or treats.

It turns out they are just happy to hang out with us – OK they do demand a bit of a scratch as well.

Most people probably don’t know that sheep recognise their names and remember up to 50 individuals. Our little flock of orphan sheep is here to stay and it’s our aim that they live out their natural lives happily and healthily.

They, and the Isle of Tiree, are the inspiration behind every design that leaves our studio.

The hats

We started designing and making our range of wool hats to help support our growing flock. However, as we have become more focused we’ve been able to look at addressing many of the social and environmental challenges facing the fashion industry.

Our sheep and life on Tiree have given us a new and unexpected focus.

Each year we’ll do all we can to help other orphaned lambs live long and happy lives and in turn they help us point WELAN in the right direction for people and our planet.

As well as learning everything we could about how to look after our new flock, we set out to learn how to turn their summer haircuts into ethical handmade hats that make a difference to people’s lives.

After investing in a hand drum carder, spinning wheel and a good few months of trial and error, the 100% Tiree Made woolly hat was born.

Our first hat, and all subsequent hats, are inspired by the island’s colour pallet, the constantly changing light and the diversity found in our random mix of fleeces.

We’re lucky that as a child Yvonne and her mother spent many evenings knitting together, as this really gave us a kick start. We both have creative backgrounds running an innovation and design business before leaving London.

So, it seemed to make sense that whilst learning the skills necessary to turn a raw fleece into a desired item unique to the owner, we could find ways to improve the sustainability of both the thinking and doing behind the business.

Slow fashion, or what we see as the creation of ethical and sustainable clothing, can make a positive impact on the world we live in. It just requires some new thinking combined with some much older and forgotten doing. More local and lasting, than fast and forgettable.

Our ethical wool has so many amazing properties: temperature regulation, water repelling properties and at the end of its long life it’s fully compostable.

The amazing thing about living on a small Scottish island is how quickly acquaintances become friends.

Friends who invite you over for a simple cup of tea, which turns out to be a life changing moment.

Life changing not just for us, but for our new fluffy, four-legged family members.

And thanks to them people around the world have warmer heads on colder days. We hope the result of listening to our gut back in 2018 and the subsequent life changing cup of tea is that more orphaned lambs become sheep who live long, healthy and happy lives.

But, equally we want the collective efforts of likeminded people in the fashion industry to ensure an ethical and sustainable approach to life becomes the status quo. Find out more about WELAN here.