In Conversation with Sophie Sellu

In Conversation with Sophie Sellu

Our hands are our hardest working companions. Yet, how often do we pause to appreciate their efforts?

In our new Maker Series, “Hands at Work,” we’re speaking to artisans doing extraordinary things. To kick off the series, we spent a sunny June morning speaking to Sophie Sellu – the hands behind Grain & Knot. From fashion forecaster to award-winning woodworker, Sophie employs traditional hand tools and techniques to craft exquisite wooden objects that elevate even the most simple daily tasks and give new life to otherwise discarded pieces of wood.

Tell us about Grain & Knot – how did it start and what was your journey into working with wood?

I started Grain & Knot about 12 years ago at a bit of a turbulent time in my career. I was a trend forecaster in the fashion industry and I’d been made redundant twice. I’d always very much been tied to my computer, but I really wanted to do things with my hands, so I started taking different creative courses. I'd actually started woodworking at school, so I've been doing it from the age of 11 and it was something that I always wanted to go back to. I saw this as an opportunity to try again with it, went on a carving course and I was just instantly hooked. There was something about being so close with the materials and it being slow, mindful and really peaceful that just resonated with what I wanted to do at that time. 

Where do you gather inspiration from?

I always wanted to make things that you couldn't find anywhere else. I get a lot of inspiration from nature but also from the timber itself – the grain patterns and how there are so many variations even within the same piece of wood. I do a lot of really quick free-form sketches and try not to overthink the forms too much, but once I've drawn those I'll cut them into paper and card and work it out that way before I translate it into wood, so it’s definitely related to the material a lot. 

So how do you choose the wood? Do you see its potential from the moment you pick a piece up or do you have to sit with it for a bit to understand what you might create?

Yeah, I really sit with it. I've got a lot of pieces of wood that are so beautiful so I feel like I need to do them justice. I have a selection of pieces that I don’t feel ready to work with yet, so I've put them to one side until I do. One of the reasons I work in paper first is so that I can really get the form down and know that it’s exactly what I want to make. Then I can use that as a template to mark up the wood so that I'm not wasting anything.

How much of your work is technical – mapped and measured – versus more of a creative flow?

A lot of my work is more of a natural flow – very free form and organic. But there always comes a point where I have to translate that into actual objects. When I create a collection, I'll pick out some really beautiful pieces of wood that sit really nicely together to make the collection feel cohesive. From there I'll decide what will work well as a brush etc and work it out that way – then I translate the forms into objects.

Tell me about working with your hands – what do you love about it, what's challenging about it and also what it feels like to have them constantly in play? 

I'm a really tactile person, I touch everything and that has really translated into my work. I'm constantly navigating each piece which has become second-nature but it can be really hard. Working with your hands can be a slow process and there are lots of hard textures on tools and machines – I catch my hands on the knife every so often so I do take regular breaks and use those moments to slow down. It’s quite a meditative way to work and I can go at my own pace which I love. Though I try to be mindful, I feel like I'm quite chaotic a lot (laughs). Even in my studio – due to the sheer number of shapes and objects and things going on at once. It's calm chaos! I try to work in a quite cyclical way, so I'll only release a collection maybe four times a year and I'll know that there's an end point to each – so I can work in a way that works for me, which is quite nice.

I’d love to hear about any specific pieces that are your favourites or that have been the most challenging? 

One of the most challenging things in the past few years for me was actually sourcing the bristles for my brushes. I love making them so much. The thought process behind them was that I wanted to make really beautiful, sculptural objects that have a purpose and a function. We all have a dustpan and brush and we all keep it under our sink – hidden away. But I wanted to make objects that elevate your everyday experience – something that’s functional, but beautiful enough for you to want it on display. I want to add a bit of joy, even to the most mundane of tasks – it’s something that really fascinates me. The bristles took me eight months of emails and asking questions to source though. It's a very fiddly process to get them in and to get them perfect, but it's really satisfying and they're satisfying objects to hold and use which was the goal.

Totally. They're so beautiful. And you use different types of bristle for the different colour tones, right? 

Yes. They have different tones and different stiffnesses. The darker black ones are plant fibres from palm trees, the paler ones are the root of an agave plant and the orange bristles are coconut fibre. I really wanted to find something that grew in the UK, but it's just not possible so rather than use animal fibres, I’ve searched far and wide for the best plant-based bristles I could find. 

Other than that, some of the trickier things to make are actually the really small, fiddly pieces like the pickle forks. They're so tricky because you've got to be really gentle with the knife, but then there's also sharp points on them. 

Wow, there’s so much that goes into each piece that’s so often overlooked. 

Definitely. These aren’t the things we really talk about but a lot of time and energy goes into the smallest things. On social media, for example, people only see the finished product or the process that you want them to see. The blood, sweat and tears that's gone into everything is kept private a lot of the time but I think it’s important to tell more of these stories. To show people how hard things can be to make and that the process can be really long – or that I’ve cut my thumb multiple times!

Absolutely. So do you have any self care rituals that you prioritise in light of this?

Rest is really important to me and I can feel the benefits when I have an extended period of rest for sure. I'm also a huge advocate of a really long, hot bath – if I'm overwhelmed or stressed out, it’s such a tonic – it just sorts everything out. I don't have my phone there – I'm just in the bath and there’s nothing else I can do which is great. I’m trying to get better at prioritising rest and it’s definitely helping me. Especially as I work with my hands – if I'm tired, I have to have a break or the quality of my work will fall.

You were telling me about how you hold ‘Freelancer Fridays’ as well with your friends too…

Yes, we do! We have this thing called ‘Freelance Friday’ which is where myself and a group of freelance friends take some time and do something fun on a Friday afternoon. It will often go into the early hours of Saturday morning (laughs), but most of the time we do something wholesome like visit a gallery, beautiful little independent shops or something that we wouldn't normally be doing during the day. It’s quite impromptu and there's no rhyme or reason to it. As freelancers, we don't have colleagues so connecting with people is really important. For me particularly, it’s definitely beneficial to actually step away from the studio and shut the door. I’m lucky I have a designated workspace where I can do that. Home is home and work is work – that’s been key for me.

Love that. Going back to self care, and particularly with your hands – as you work with them constantly – how do you look after them and have you always looked after them?

A few years ago, I was just working way too much and got to a point where I was waking up and couldn’t open my hands – they were like claws. It was a turning point where I had to reassess what I was doing and how I was working. Because if I have an issue with my hands, I cannot work! From there I changed my processes and that's one of the reasons why I only launch collections four times a year. I have my busier times and have times where certain processes will really affect my hands, but then I'll do some things that give them more of a break. So it's a bit of a flow – making sure I'm not doing too many things at once. It's so important and something I've learned more as I've gotten older – you really need to look after yourself!

We like to think of this maker series as a gentle reminder to pause, appreciate all our hands are able to do and think how we care for them and ourselves.

Sophie uses the Reia Lime Leaf, Vetiver and Amber Hand Cream. Pre-order here.

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