In Depth

Grain & Knot: A cut above

Founder Sophie Sellu on leaving her office job to start her own business hand-carving wooden utensils

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In 2013 I was an interior designer and then fashion forecaster and, like everyone living and working in the city, I was constantly tired. Long hours in central London took their toll on me, and I never left the office feeling content. Creatively, I often felt stifled and that my ideas were wrong, which manifested into anxiety about under-performing. After attending a weekend woodwork course in Sussex I felt as though I had a moment of clarity. From then on, I'd come home from stressful days in the office and carve spoons; it became my own form of mindfulness. Fast-forward two years and I was faced with redundancy, so I took the plunge into funding a start-up. That's when Grain & Knot was born.

Everything seemed to happen at the right time for me. Even though I was made redundant, I was still living with my parents, so stopping full-time work didn't mean I was going to sacrifice a roof over my head. In the beginning, I gave Grain & Knot six months. I had to be strict and told myself if I hadn't made any progress in that time I was going to call it a day. I know that is a relatively short amount of time, but it didn't seem realistic for me to spend any longer doing something that may not work. With the financial support of The Prince's Trust, I moved my workspace from my parents' garage to a leafy South London studio and got to work.

Woodwork encompasses my love of nature, exploration and, of course, tradition. The majority of the timber that I use is reclaimed – I have friends and family in the right places. My uncle works on the renovation of period properties so is able to salvage the most incredible timbers from around the world that would otherwise end up in a landfill. I have friends who are tree surgeons and carpenters who give me their off-cuts too, and I am very lucky in that respect as sourcing timber can be really tricky otherwise. For some projects the source of the timber needs to be known, so for this I have a brilliant timber yard that I use that's just outside of London. They only sell ethically grown and sourced timbers and it's a fantastic place to explore for a wood nerd like me.

I'm still the only employee of Grain & Knot, which means that I am limited to the number of projects I can take on. Liberty of London was a fantastic opportunity for me, but it really did stretch me. It came around after I attended the Liberty open call back when Grain & Knot was only a few months old, and I was given such fantastic advice from the buying team. A couple of years later the same buyer had seen my work on Instagram, so they got in touch.

You often don't realise how the digital world and city dwelling affects you until you take a step back. Like anyone else, I find it so hard to put my phone down, but by doing something with my hands I can take my mind somewhere else and find this sense of calm. Over the last year I have been running carving workshops across London, which has allowed me to see that more people are finding ways to connect with nature now. There definitely seems to have been a resurgence, especially in traditional crafts. The main comments from people who attend my workshops are about how relaxing it is just to stop everything and step a little out of their comfort zone. It's really important to reconnect with yourself every once in awhile and take on small challenges; these are the ingredients to make you happy.

During my workshops, you learn the safest way to use woodcarving knives, and how to transfer these skills to other woodworking projects that you may wish to explore. I talk about the source of the timber, and how to care for it once the item has been made. I often get asked a lot of questions about how I began carving and how attendees can develop their skills once they get home. I would say setting achievable targets is important and taking the time to hone your skills and really learn the craft. For anyone ready to take the leap into funding a start-up, my advice is to make sure that by stopping your day job you aren't going to struggle in your everyday life. Writing a business and financial plan to see how many items you would have to make to cover your bills is also essential. It's not a failure to have to get extra work to supplement what you are doing, it just allows you to push it further. Start small and try not to invest too much money in buying expensive tools and equipment. Seek help from others and constantly talk about your plans and intentions, as you never know where good ideas will come from.

For me, I am now much more positive about my work life and a lot happier having complete creative control. I am moving studios this summer and working on a house I will be renovating in South London. Alongside that, I am also at the beginning stages of writing a book. It's not carving-related and won't be out for a little while, but I am finding a nice change in doing lots of research and getting out of my usual rhythm.

SOPHIE SELLU is the founder of independent company Grain & Knot, which specialises in wooden homeware, and regularly holds woodcarving workshops; grainandknot.com

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