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They stitch while doing time

13 December 2013

Prisoners used to sew mailbags for the GPO. Now they are making high-end embroidery for churches and stately homes, earning cash and self-respect. Sarah Marten reports


Prison escape: a tapestry class  at HMP Albany on the Isle of Wight

Prison escape: a tapestry class  at HMP Albany on the Isle of Wight

ROSS is a lifer who, like many others facing a long prison sentence, was suffering from severe depression. He had tried hobbies in the past, but they ended up discarded in the corner of the cell. "Most of the time I've been unwashed, unshaven, teeth not cleaned, hair not combed; as often as not my cell has been dirty and stinking," he says. "I had nobody to love me. I was just hanging on to a futile, empty and miserable existence."

He resorted to prayer. "Every night, I asked God to have mercy on me, and not make me endure another day. I've wept as I asked why I was in the world."

Then he had a visitor. "I was lying in my cell one evening when a bloke came in, and asked if I could help him. I didn't know the fella, but he had helped me with cigarettes and cigarette papers and teabags.

"He explained how he'd broken his glasses, and needed to finish a pattern he was sewing. . . Although I class myself as being very butch, and sewing so very feminine, I figured I owed him, so I agreed to help him finish his work.

"He showed me what it was I had to do. I made him promise not to tell anybody, and I hid it in a cupboard in my cell. About nine o'clock I got it out, and started sewing. Before I knew where I was, they were unlocking us for breakfast; a whole night had come and gone, with no thoughts of suicide, and no tears of melancholy."

In prisons all over the country, similar events are taking place. Prisoners are picking up a needle and thread for the first time in their lives, and producing work of a standard that they never would have dreamt possible.

They are producting embroidery for Fine Cell Work, a charity that sends skilled volunteers into prisons to teach embroidery and sewing skills to the inmates. And their skills are of the highest order. The Prince of Wales has commissioned cushions, and their embroideries and tapestries can be seen in museums, galleries, castles, and churches all over the UK. The items include elaborate wall-hangings, embroidered pictures, kneelers, and altar frontals.

PRISONERS are paid for their work - they can save for the future, or spend on daily essentials. About 97 per cent of the participants are men.

Fine Cell Work has developed from the pioneering work of Lady Anne Tree, daughter of the tenth Duke of Devonshire, during the 1960s. A regular prison visitor, she initially worked in Holloway Prison with two prisoners who made needlepoint rugs, which were sold to New York collectors.

Lady Anne became increasingly convinced of the therapeutic benefits of sewing and embroidery, aaconsidering it to be a form of meditation. She dismissed any notion that sewing was an activity simply for women, and campaigned to get legislation changed, allowing prisoners to earn a wage for their work.

Fine Cell Work was launched in 1997, and now has a team of more than 60 volunteers, working with 400 prisoners in about 20 prisons in the UK.

The charity also works closely with designers and artists, including Jasper Conran, Nina Campbell, and Gavin Turk. And for the prisoners - many of whom are spending increasing amounts of time locked in their cells - this is having some profound and rather surprising effects.

Ross, for example, was surprised when he found that he was going to be paid for his efforts. He has been able to buy weightlifting equipment and a radio, and is saving for other personal items. More important, the work has given him self-respect. "I'm quite respectable now: my self-worth has been restored, and I feel extremely good at the thought that I am helping somebody else as well as myself."

He has something to look forward to. "How good it is to be alive, and to feel that I am accomplishing something, and that my life has real meaning," he says. "Nobody really enjoys an aimless life, a life without purpose, do they? I still get depressed, but nothing to cry about."

PRISONERS with serious mental-health problems have found that involvement in needlework and embroidery has meant that they have needed less in-patient treatment for depression while in prison.

The fact that prisoners are paid for their work is important. One prisoner saved up £900 by the end of his sentence - a healthy nest-egg, and one that would help him to start his new life more effectively. Prisoners get to keep 37 per cent of the proceeds of their work, with the remainder of the money going towards the running of the charity. Cushions are priced from about £50 to £120, and a king-sized quilt might cost about £800.

The volunteers, who teach the inmates, are experienced embroiderers and quilt-makers in their own right, who give their time to the charity for free. Many are members of the Embroiders' Guild, or the Quilters' Guild. They share the same ambition - to change the lives of the inmates through the calming effects of embroidery.

Tuition often takes place outside the cells, in an education section of the prison. Classes are usually held every two weeks, when prisoners are often taught a new stitch or technique by the volunteers, who also sometimes work with inmates in their cells, helping them with their sewing projects.

FINE CELL WORK is in the process of making 60 kneelers for St Peter's, Hammersmith, in west London. "Our existing kneelers were looking rather scrappy and worn, and so when a parishioner told me about Fine Cell Work, I wanted to find out more," the Vicar of St Peter's, Canon John Record, says. "Not only have we ended up with beautiful kneelers of the highest quality, but as a church we have been able to make a difference to prisoners' lives.

"Fine Cell Work is a fantastic organisation, as it not only gives prisoners worthwhile work, which fills their time, but it also teaches them useful skills. We have received various letters from prisoners who testify to the amazing sense of self-worth that the work has given them.

"In one letter, a prisoner told me that he realised that the things he had been doing in life were so bad. But making the kneelers had enabled him to do something useful, and in this way he was able to say sorry, and give something back. I suppose it is restitution in some way, although he would never have used those words."

Each kneeler made for St Peter's has an embroidered message on the side. Most are just one word, such as "sorry", "love", "remorse", or "freedom". Some include the name of a loved one.

Not all the kneelers in the church have been made by prisoners. "Some of our kneelers are made by parishioners or friends," Canon Record says. "But the fact that prisoners are contributing to our church on an equal level with everyone else is important. And people notice the special messages, and the fact that the prisoners have been able to express their feelings. This gives these beautiful kneelers more impact."

The idea of the prisoners having a link with a sacred place is important, Canon Record believes. "The discovery that their work is worth displaying in a church, which is the house of God, and therefore an important place, is very meaningful. This gives an added dimension to what they are doing. "

FINE CELL WORK's design and commissions manager, Elena Hall, worked closely with St Peter's to develop the designs for the kneelers. "The church has various motifs, such as sheep and birds, as well as other Arts and Crafts designs, which are part of the interior. I helped to incorporate these images into the design of each kneeler."

She also explains why this project has been so beneficial to the prisoners. "Producing beautiful work for a church enables the prisoners to feel part of society. And the fact that they can include messages of remorse on the kneelers is important: in this way they can experience some forgiveness.

"Added to this, perfection isn't usually expected in prison, and so a sense of pride develops when work of the highest standard is produced. The prisoners are praised for their beautiful work, and for some people this is the first time in their life that this has ever happened."

St Mary's, Ealing, in west London, has also commissioned four embroidered lectern falls, which were designed by a member of the congregation, the artist Suzanna Rust.

The Vicar of St Mary's, the Revd Stephen Paynter, says that working with Fine Cell Work dovetailed with the church's mission. "We believe strongly in restorative justice, and have a long history of lay members' being involved in Wormwood Scrubs prison.

"We participate in various projects, such as the Prison Fellowship's Sycamore Tree victim-awareness programme, Alpha, and prison visiting. When I heard about Fine Cell Work, I instantly felt it was brilliant to support prisoners who are seeking to be creative and productive, and who are also trying to move their lives in a positive direction."

Another advantage of using Fine Cell Work is the reasonable cost. "If we had gone to ecclesiastical embroiderers, the cost would have been very much higher. For us, using Fine Cell Work meant the perfect match. We want to use the church's money wisely, and benefit prisoners at the same time. It took about a year, from the date of our commission, to arrive, but it was well worth the wait, and we are thrilled with the beautiful results."

THE development director for Fine Cell Work, Katy Emck, explains more about the benefits of embroidery and sewing for prisoners. "Time hangs very heavily in our country's prison cells," she says. "Many of our prisons are also overcrowded, and the inmates often find the conditions unbearable. Many prisoners are highly traumatised.

"A large percentage of the people we work with are men. And they have often committed violent offences, frequently matching the stereotypical image of a rough prisoner with tattoos. They usually find the sewing to be focused and gentle, and in this way prisoners are removed from the brutality of their environment. It is impossible to be angry while you are sewing."

Time in prison can, ironically, be a time of great creativity. "Prisoners often find that they are locked up more in the first part of their sentence, with precious little to do," Ms Emck says. "One man composed 400 songs while he was locked up, and others discover an artistic talent that they were unaware of, which can then be channelled into embroidery and sewing.

"Many of our prisoners come from highly troubled backgrounds, and have often suffered abuse and neglect themselves. Some have no family, having come from the care system. Crime has often been their daily reality. But when they start to produce top-end work, they start to generate some self-respect. And the work that they do starts to break down society's prejudices about prisoners. As one customer said, 'They can't be all bad if they made that.'

"Fine Cell Work changes their aspirations, and that can mean that prisoners are perhaps less likely to return to crime once they leave. These lost souls have done something meaningful in prison, and have skills that they can continue to develop on the outside. We are also teaching upholstery skills, since this is an area in which they might find employment after they are released.

"Prison reduces individuals, and what we are doing brings out the good in people. Prisoners are the outcasts and rejects of society, but when they find that they are producing beautiful work for Dover Castle, or the Victoria and Albert museum, then they way they see themselves is changed.

"People find fulfilment in prison, and their thank-you letters to us and the customers illustrate just how beneficial this is."


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