From Russia with love
Monday, 30 November -0001

From Russia with love

After her family had flown the nest, Terrie Tollemache began importing linens from Russia – and they now grace our finest tables. Hugh St Clair meets her

When many grandmothers are thinking of taking life easier, Terrie Tollemache, recently divorced with adult children, embarked on an adventure. She started a business, Volga Linen, to import the most beautiful linen sheets, tablecloths and furnishing fabric, all woven in a small factory in the middle of Russia.

She had never run a business before. ‘For years I had been a mother looking after a house, children, dogs and ponies,’ she explains. ‘It all happened by accident. My grandmother was Russian and I went there to find out more about our family. It was in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism and the country was in chaos.

‘In the country regions, people were starving and the hospitals had no medicines.’ Terrie was moved to action, so she contacted Western European drug companies and liaised with the British ambassador to distribute medicines to the needy. ‘Sometimes we delivered them in the ambassadorial Rolls-Royce,’ she says. But Terrie, who speaks a smattering of Russian, realised that it was trade not aid that the country wanted. ‘Russians kept asking me if I could sell aircraft carriers to the West, but I had to tell them I didn’t know any prospective buyers.’

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It was a chance meeting with a friend that gave her a business idea. ‘I had always brought back beautiful linen embroidered sheets and napkins as presents because that was pretty much all you could buy in Russia. My friend said why don’t you import the linen and sell it? So Volga Linen was born. I started selling at small fairs and sending out illustrated postcards to friends.’

Today, 15 years later, Volga Linen is a thriving company with shops in London and Suffolk, near Terrie’s home. Her monogrammed linen graces all the best tables in Britain and Russia and her curtains hang at the windows of hotels and apartments. She has just been commissioned by Prince Charles to make embroidered linen for the new restaurant at Highgrove.

‘Volga Linen has taken me to places I never knew about or would never have visited,’ she tells me. ‘The factory is deep in the countryside where no tourists go.’

Terrie is in her 60s, but looks at least 10 years younger. Her house is down a long track, inland, by the Suffolk coast. It is surrounded by woods and, amid the trees, are two huts that have been converted into Russian-style mini dachas. Both are made from wood, with interior walls painted a soft grey. One is where her partner, world-renowned concert pianist Christian Blackshaw, works; the other she uses as a summer bedroom – an Eastern European pine bed has been placed against a linen curtain with mustard stripe and red cushions.

From Russia with love

Having been rebuilt after a fire, Terrie’s main house is contemporary in style. The drawing room is double height with huge windows framed by faded red linen curtains, overlooking rolling countryside. The floor is covered in rugs of abstract rose patterns from Moldavia.

Terrie visits Russia four times a year. ‘I am lucky to have a marvellous Russian business partner there to ensure everything is how we want it. Getting the right colour linen for our fabrics is very important. We only achieved weaving two colours together on our paisley tablecloths through lots of experimentation and explaining exactly what we wanted to the ladies in the factory.’ She admits getting to where she is has been far from easy. Importing from Russia was not like working with countries in the West. ‘They used to have a quota system,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t get the linen because we had exhausted our quota. Luckily that has been abolished.’

From Russia with love

She shows no signs of slowing down. ‘I would like to do less administration,’ she admits. ‘But I don’t work at weekends. That is the time I see my grandchildren, some of whom live next door. I try to garden, too.’

Has she any advice for budding businesswomen with grown-up children? ‘Don’t rush, or load yourself up with debt and anxiety,’ she advises. ‘I learned as I went along, so mistakes were manageable and not overwhelming.’

She didn’t have very much money to invest. ‘But rather than taking out a loan, I borrowed small sums from friends that I repaid within 18 months. I now own all the business.’ She is glad she didn’t know too much before she started. ‘If I had known how complicated things were I would have been more cautious. But I had a sort of naive optimism that drove me and made it all work.’

Volga Linen, 17 Langton Street, London SW10: 0844-499 1609, www.volgalinen.co.uk

Christian Blackshaw is playing Mozart Piano Sonatas at Wigmore Hall on 25 September, 36 Wigmore Street, London W1: 020-7935 2141, www.wigmore-hall.org.uk

 



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