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Outside Influence



Kenyan-born designer-maker Kirsten Hecktermann produces stunning cushions using velvet and antique fabrics that she hand-dyes in her peaceful garden. Here, she explains why she loves working in this quiet corner of the Suffolk countryside


If you’re ever lucky enough to stumble across Kirsten Hecktermann’s deliberately tucked away workshop in Suffolk, you’ll find yourself surrounded by all manner of treasures, from sumptuous Italian velvets and intricate embroidery to sturdy linens sourced in Russia and carved spoons from Kenya. Kirsten, who grew up on a Kenyan cattle farm, started her professional life as a chef, working in kitchens across the globe before finding her way into textile restoration. Here, she shares the highlights of her unconventional career path and paints a picture of creative life in the heart of the British countryside.

I started working with textiles when I was 21. The film Out of Africa was being shot in Nairobi at the time and I approached the production team for a job in the kitchen. They wouldn’t take a female cook but I managed to get work assisting the costume supervisor, Kenny Crouch. After that I got a job in the UK with Jo Dalby, who supplied original costumes for film. That was when I learnt to restore antique fabrics. I worked in the film industry for ten years and acquired some invaluable skills while doing so.

I moved to Ibiza to help build a yoga retreat in the 1990s and used my sewing skills to make a living while I was there. I sourced silk and antique fabrics in the UK and hand-dyed them on the island, then adding embroidery. People started asking if I made plain velvet cushions as well as embroidered ones, and that’s where my new career started: I’ve been making them ever since.

I’ve lived in Suffolk for 15 years now. The landscape here reminds me of Africa and the vast and beautiful cattle farm I grew up on. My workshop is really off the beaten track so people can’t just drop in. This means I can turn the telephone off, hide myself away and focus on my work.  

I dye all of my fabric outsideby hand. Cloudy, dry days arebest as bright sunshine makes ithard to judge the colours properly.I fill a big vat with water and lifteach batch of fabric in and outabout ten times. It’s very physically demanding and I keep thinking that I should train someone up to take over, but it’s such an instinctive process that I can’t really imagine how I’d delegate it.

I like to work with unusual antique fabrics that are disintegrating and would otherwise be thrown away as it’s a way of giving them a second chance. I have a couple of people who help with the embroidery and I collaborate a lot with Retrouvius, as the team there have a similar way of working and give me so much creative freedom.

I design wooden spoons that are carved in Kenya by a carpenter who apprenticed in my father’s workshop. My range of antique cushions is available online and at the Hand Sale at the 20th Century Theatre in Notting Hill, London, which I help my friend Gail Arnold to organise.

I begin every day by sitting for a while in a fallen tree in the garden with the cat and a cup of tea. I’ve never been one for cities: they’re great for learning and inspiration but I’m really an outdoors person at heart.