Anglo-Russian adventurer, writer and TV presenter Alexandra Tolstoy gives us a glimpse into the stories that informed her dreamy knitwear collaboration with Brora.

For most new graduates, the world of interning and interrailing beckons. For Alexandra Tolstoy, such well-trodden paths held little appeal. Instead, fresh from her degree at Edinburgh in the 1990s, she and three girlfriends set out to ride 5,000 miles of the Silk Road on horse and camel, the first people to do so since the time of Marco Polo. From Merv in Turkmenistan they journeyed to Xian in China; remote and frequently harsh, the experience would not, for Alexandra, become an extraordinary experience that she would one day look back on in amazement from the comfort of a conventional life. Rather, it was just the beginning of a love affair with the life nomadic, and a plethora of new adventures followed: she spent six months riding horses through Mongolia and Eastern Siberia. She retraced a legendary Soviet expedition of Turkmen riders from Ashgabad to Moscow’s Red Square. And, finally, she began to lead expeditions on horseback through Kyrgyzstan.

A descendent of Leo Tolstoy, Alexandra grew up on the Russian fairy tales of 19th-century romantic poet Alexander Pushkin, a tradition that she has faithfully handed down to her own children. And it was these bedtimes spent huddled around the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin that depicted cultural symbols such as the fire bird, the toadstool, and sprites or mythical forest creatures, that she drew on when Brora approached her to collaborate on a Fair Isle collection. Together they have created four cashmere pieces: a knitted jumper, a tank top, a snood and mittens.

Founder and creative director of Brora, Victoria Stapleton, says: ‘I love Alexandra’s authentic passion for Brora, which has been one of her go-to brands for over 20 years. Our joint love affair with Fair Isle design brought us together for this exciting collaboration. I was thrilled when I saw her moodboard full of Bilibin’s illustrations. These made the perfect starting point for designs unique to Alexandra’s style and aesthetic.’

We chatted to Alexandra to delve deeper into her inspiration for the collection.

Congratulations on your collaboration with Brora this AW22. It must have been a thrill to be asked to design a collection…

Yes, I have worn Brora for as long as I can remember – I used my first pay cheque to buy two jumpers! I also adore Fair Isle and my children and I wear it a lot, so it was the dream collaboration for me.

It is beautiful – and riffs on the Pushkin folklore fairy tales. Can you tell us a little about how the stories feed into your designs?

My father and I grew up in exile from Russia, but I learned Russian when I was 18 and have made a great effort for my children to speak the language. They have grown up on Pushkin’s fairy tales and specifically those illustrated by Ivan Bilibin. It was his magical and decorative paintings that I used as inspiration for my collection; I took motifs such as the toadstool and firebird that are so evocative of the great Russian forest and Brora created the most beautiful and original Fair Isle pattern from them. Bilibin’s colour palette is the same as that of Russian icons – earthy, natural colours and we have replicated these with a wonderful teal blue, mustard and deep red.

Your Russian heritage is something that, as your legions of followers will know, finds expression in many aspects of your life, from your beautiful house to your work. What is it about Russian storytelling, folklore and art that makes it so compelling?

When I first visited Russia in 1992 it was the bleakest and greyest of countries, but I was immediately bewitched. Somehow I felt a huge emotional connection with the people and the landscapes. It is a country that feels so rich in culture and also deeply connected to the earth. I lived in Moscow for many years and thrived on the spontaneous and creative pace of life. Now, sadly, I won’t go to Russia – I find their actions in Ukraine too upsetting – but I am still passionate about the literature and art. In contrast to many European cultures, folklore plays a huge part in the Russian identity and, to me, folk traditions are the closest form of art to nature.

For this collaboration, you chose to use Fair Isle – the folklore and narratives of both the Scottish and the Russian traditions intertwine around one another so well. Why do you think that is?

I think all folk traditions are similar. They spring from the earth so perhaps it’s not surprising. There is also wonderful Fair Isle to be found in Estonia and Scandinavian countries and I love seeing how each country has its own specific characteristics. Using the richer Russian palette of colours and more figurative motifs has brought something new but totally harmonious to the traditional Scottish Fair Isle.

Another hugely thrilling part of your work is that you lead horseback expeditions through Kyrgyzstan. Good knitwear must be central to surviving well on such epic journeys. Did these experiences, at least in part, inform your designs?

Yes, I have learned from many years of riding in the remotest places that layers are very important! The weather as always in the mountains is unpredictable and on my trip last month, I spent every evening in my snood and mittens – much to the jealousy of my clients!

You recently led a journey through the mountains on horseback – with, I think, plans to lead more next year. Can you tell us a little about your expeditions?

I spent a decade riding all over Central Asia, Siberia, Russia and Mongolia. From this I set up a business organising riding holidays to the most beautiful spot that I encountered on these journeys: Sary Chelek in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Clients come for ten days and we ride through the most extraordinarily magnificent landscapes, swimming in lakes and camping at night. It’s a big logistical operation as we move camp each day, but I have a wonderful team of locals whom I’ve worked with for over twenty years now.

What is it about Kyrgyzstan that speaks to your soul in the way that it very evidently does?

I think the freedom of the mountains. We have no phone reception and are completely immersed in a place so beautiful I can only compare it to the Garden of Eden. It’s a time when you can switch off from the stresses of everyday life and feel truly alive.

Your style is much admired – and your Preloved By Alexandra Tolstoy sale stirred much coveting! Are heritage and stories important when it comes to the things that you buy?

Thank you! I’m not interested in fashion or trends but yes, I love traditional styles and materials. I also like to be a little playful – like decorating, style should never be too serious! I love to use contrasting textures and patterns, and I suppose my style is ‘country’ mostly, despite living predominantly in London.

Your interior style is also wonderful – and the success of The Tolstoy Edit is testament to that. How would you define your style?

In London I have decorated our home in a layered and textured way, using lots of rich colours and many folk piece. Lots of people say it feels Russian but actually I would say it’s more eclectic. It’s definitely maximalist and I don’t have rules – I just use what I love, which can range from a 1970s Uzbek suzani to an English embroidered sampler.

And finally, if you could take just one piece from your Brora collection to a desert island, which would it be?

I think the tank top – the other pieces might be rather hot!

By Nancy Alsop
November 2022

Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.