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Editorial blog

Wool Couture’s Claire Gelder happy to launch first book

08 Oct 2019

Angela Sara West talks to Claire Gelder, MD at Wool Couture, about how she made it to the top and how happy she is to have just launched her first book.

Since setting up her first online store with Etsy, Claire Gelder, MD at Wool Couture, has successfully combined her impressive business acumen with her passion. Having attracted the attention of not one, but two ‘Dragons’, Touker Suleyman and Tej Lalvani, she now heads up the UK’s leading chunky and giant knitting company.

There can be few bigger crafty success stories than that of Wool Couture. Founded in Yorkshire, the Barnsley-based business has seen rapid growth in just a few short years, along with the enjoyment of playing a part in keeping traditional crafts alive.

Spinning and weaving, designing and making, adding its distinctive contemporary twist to age-old crafts, the company creates beautiful, handcrafted pieces of luxurious quality, including its famous super chunky knitting needles, crochet hooks and gigantic yarns, in the buzzing design studio and wood-turning workshop.

The designer and retailer of luxury yarns, DIY knitting, crochet and macramé kits, Wool Couture puts its unique ‘Best of British’ and modern spin on their stylish supplies, designs and unique kits, which are innovative, creative, accessible and ready-to-make for busy crafters all around the world. Inspiring and nurturing artisans on their own handmade journey, the talented team invite you to #createyourhappy!

With her love of all things handmade, handwoven and handcrafted, former NHS Director, Claire Gelder, fell in love with knitting and crochet at a young age. “I picked up my first crochet hook and ball of wool and learned to crochet when I was eight years-old.” Intrigued by her yarn and hook, she bought a special box for her much-cherished, new-found treasure. “I have been crafting ever since!” The founder and MD of Wool Couture is also the company’s Designer of Patterns. Claire says she adores all forms of fibre and making unique pieces of “what I class as art!” and loves learning new crafts. “While I love knitting and crochet, I also adore weaving, macramé and rag rugging. More recently, I’ve started making some pieces using needle work ‒ though I am a complete novice at this and am teaching myself as I go. When I think about the crafts that I like, they all involve using some type of fibre to make something.

I just love dreaming of pieces in my head and then actually making them; I love the challenge of working out how to make things and am always happy to learn from my mistakes.”

From NHS director to Dragons’ Den Star!

Claire left her career at the NHS in 2015 to launch her new business, Wool Couture, specialising in knitting, crochet, weaving and macramé. She was soon delivering her DIY craft kits to the shelves of retail giant, John Lewis. It all began when her other half suggested she ‘rehomed’ some of the things that she’d made. Claire listed the first scarf she ever made on ETSY, and it sold within hours. “It was an amazing feeling! It led to another scarf and then people began asking for patterns, knitting needles and yarn. Within just six months, we’d turned over £80k, and that was the start of Wool Couture!” She faced numerous practical issues when starting the business. Having historically relied heavily on IT departments at the NHS, she says setting up an online commerce proved a real challenge. “We originally started selling on Etsy, since it was a platform which was already set up and required minimal IT knowledge, plus it already had a massive worldwide audience reach and customer base.”

Once she and co-founder, Ali Gelder, were established and turning over a whopping £180k on Etsy, they launched their own website, www. woolcouturecompany.com. “In 2016, Ali and I officially turned my little hobby into Wool Couture, deciding to take traditional crafts and put them into modern craft kits. Within 12 months, we had turned over £360k.”

Expanding premises

Still working out of her dining room, with a massive undertaking looming over her head, having taken on a contract with John Lewis and Urban Outfitters, Claire enlisted the help of Barnsley-based The Business Village, which offers flexible-managed work space and offices to rent to businesses in approved business sectors, together with targeted business support. Within a week, she and Ali had moved in, and were enjoying the benefits of being part of a managed workspace/business growth office hub. Starting in a small unit, they moved to a larger one and subsequently took on another. With basics such as heating, lighting, telephones and Internet all taken care of, Claire was freed up to concentrate on driving sales, enabling her to build her extensive quality product range for a worldwide audience to enjoy.

On fire in the den!

Turning a hobby into a successful business is a fantastic achievement and certainly no mean feat so, in 2017, Claire and Ali decided to pitch to the Dragons to seek some expert entrepreneurial assistance.

She took our screens, and the Dragons, by storm, secured two Dragons’ Den investors, Touker Suleyman and Tej Lalvani, to help her pass on her passion of crafting to the next generation. “It was a nerve-wracking experience, but we walked away with two amazing investors, Tej and Touker, who have been helping drive the business ever since.”

With Dragons on board, it was time for her big break. “We increased our business turnover by 75 per cent in the following 12 months!” she tells me. “I now have my very own business encyclopaedia. Both Dragons gave me a team that I can access for anything I need, and I can literally pick up the ‘phone and ask ‘How do I’? They are amazing!”

And that admiration is reciprocated. “I knew from the minute that Claire walked into Dragons’ Den that she would be brilliant at everything she chooses to do,” says Touker Suleyman. “A woman with passion and integrity, Claire and Wool Couture was an investment that I wasn’t going to let go. Nothing is too much trouble for the Wool Couture team and I am proud of their significant growth.”

As for Tej, he says, “We all strive to be memorable, but it is rare on first meeting that you instinctively sense a person is going to be special. Then you look and hear their proposition and all is confirmed, but that is exactly what happened when Claire stepped out of the elevator into the Dragons’ Den – and what a remarkable ride it has been over the past couple of years for the indomitable Claire, co-founder Ali, and the Wool Couture team.”

With accolades aplenty, these high-profile investors are not the only famous fans of her work. “I once made a blanket and sent it to a famous chef, Michel Roux Jr,” says Claire. “I was quite pleased with this as I love watching him on TV!”

Dragons introduce ‘Mabel Bunny & Co.’ book

Following the TV show, Claire soon hooked a book deal with Search Press. “Shortly after my ‘Dragons’ Den’ appearance, Search Press approached me to published a book. It was a dream come true!”

Launched on September 1, 2019, Claire’s first book, ‘Mabel Bunny & Co.’, boasts 15 loveable animals, including dragons, lambs and alpacas, to crochet with chunky yarn, plus a fabulous foreword by ‘Dragons’ Touker Suleyman and Tej Lalvani. “It’s full of super chunky amigurumi toys, like Lionel and Mabel,” she says.

“Search Press have been amazing to work with and we have created an amazing book. We will launch the book in the US in October, at the Wool and Sheep Festival in New York. It’s so exciting!”

Woolly wellbeing - Weave yarns of wellness into your life!

Claire is a firm believer in the therapeutic side of craft, particularly its benefits for mental health and wellbeing. Her love for woolly makes has helped her manage anxiety and depression, alongside allowing her to channel her creative energies. “I don’t know where I would be without crafting… it has been my salvation over the years. I find it very therapeutic, and feel like it’s my own form of meditation. I can switch off to the world and I can focus on the here and now - the piece of work that I’m making, the colours that I’m using… I find my mind drifting onto what I’m going to make next, what stitches I’m making, how the fibre feels. It’s my very own sanctuary!”

She says a therapist advised her to “keep calm and crochet on!” And another crafter also hugely inspires her. “I love Erika Knight’s books and patterns and I have been a huge fan of hers over the years. There is something very calming to me about her work and I love the colours she chooses. I actually met her earlier this year at a trade fair and she is just so lovely ‒ I shed a few tears when I met her as her books have given me so much inspiration over the years when I have been in some quite dark places. “

Success secrets

The secret to Wool Couture’s outstanding accomplishments? Over to the Dragons…“Their success is a celebration of hard work and dedication to what was just a dream a few years ago, and my wish for the Wool Couture team is that they go from strength to strength, continuing this remarkable Journey,” says Touker. “My business decisions are foremost about people and then business. Claire and her partner, Ali, are the perfect example of a hard-working and driven partnership. They have a desire to produce and supply outstanding niche products with the consumer in mind. They have grown and developed the business in the time I have known them, way beyond all our expectations.”

“Approaching three years on, Wool Couture is a fully-fledged and thriving business, with Claire at the helm and Ali by her side, weaving their creative magic and driving the development of the company into new and significant areas,” add Tej. “The online business has expanded, with the first retail shop now open, new ranges launching weekly, and the intention to conquer the US market not just a dream anymore, but a reality. Understated and real, Wool Couture have a touching affinity with their audiences, which is a rare quality, enthusiastically sharing their passion for all things knitting, macramé, crochet and weaving. Always thinking of others, the team aspires to reach further craft lovers.”

Still to come

Claire and co. now have their eyes on new needles, and are taking their concepts to the sewing arena. “We’re creating a range of patterns for people to make their own tops, skirts and accessories. We’re also launching a monthly craft subscription box.” As for the future, that’s looking decidedly chunky, too. “We’ve signed a deal for another book next year, and we’re going to be focusing big on the UK and US markets,” says Claire. “We have a whole new super chunky range coming out, and watch out for our personalised range coming later this year. Oh, and you’re probably going to see us on TV soon - but I can’t say more than that right now!”

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