A crafty Barnsley business which nearly unravelled at the start of the pandemic has come out stronger thanks to soaring sales, a new business model and an octopus called Robyn.

Wool Couture, the brainchild of chunky knitting entrepreneur Claire Gelder, has seen online sales grow by a phenomenal 300 per cent during lockdown as more people have turned to needlecraft as a comforting and rewarding ‘stay at home’ hobby.

The company, which sells knitting, crochet, weaving and macrame craft kits, yarn and tools to customers in 42 countries, went into the pandemic with an annual turnover of £1 million and expects this to grow three or even four-fold in 2020. It has recruited nine new staff to keep on top of the surge in demand.

This outcome is in contrast to the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak when Claire’s supply chains froze - wool manufacturers closed and knitting needle makers switched to making masks. Trade fairs were cancelled and Wool Couture’s Brierley-based shop was shut.

Claire said: “The initial shock of Covid hit us hard like everyone and I think I lay on the settee for three weeks wondering what on earth I was going to do.

“But on our return to work after that initial shut down, we made the place Covid-safe and found we had an unprecedented number of orders waiting for us and more pouring in. We had to work very quickly to change our business model and ensure we could deliver high quality products safely to thousands of new and existing customers.”

Claire shut down Wool Couture’s retail shop and gave more space to a streamlined ‘pick, pack and ship’ operation – doubling the workforce in this area. The catalogue has been narrowed to ensure it only features products they can quickly get out of the door to customers keen to start knitting.

She has also outsourced functions such as marketing and manufacture to ensure the team at Wool Couture can focus on customer service and logistics.

Claire said: “We’ve basically changed our little craft company into a huge 100 per cent online seller and modified our product range to ensure we can still deliver on quality and creativity. It’s been a whirlwind experience, but we are now in our stride and have a business model fit for purpose. I am, of course, extremely grateful not to be facing some of the challenges faced by other businesses at this time.”

Claire has also taken the opportunity of all this re-organisation to move back from a hands-on management role and appointed two new supervisors. This allows her more time and headspace to be creative as the company’s design and pattern maker.

Claire’s second book of animals to knit using chunky yarn, ‘Robyn the Octopus and Friends’, was published by Search Press in September and is already selling fast, with 4,000 online sales, contributing another source of income to the business.

Claire said: “I wrote Robyn’s book in ‘normal’ times and it has come to market just when people are reaching out for some calm and solace through knitting and the mindfulness it can bring. I’m really pleased to have this book out there at this time.”

Claire appeared on BBC’s Dragons Den in 2017 and gained investment and business support for Wool Couture from dragons Tej Lalvani and Touker Suleyman, who have guided and encouraged Claire to re-invent the business in response to Covid-19.

Cllr Tim Cheetham, Cabinet Spokesperson for Regeneration and Culture, said: “It’s been a torrid year for business and its great of Claire to share her experience of working through the pandemic and coming out of it stronger, after adapting to its many challenges. Wool Couture is a fantastic Barnsley business and we wish the team all the best for 2021.”