One of my favourite quilts at the Festival of Quilts this year was 'Two Man Cell' by HMP Bullingdon Boys. An amazing structure, all hand stitched with attention to detail and interesting perspective, it was incredibly moving being a collaboration between Fine Cell Work tutors and prisoners, making an accurate , life size depiction of a 2 man cell in a modern British prison.
Fine Cell Work enables prisoners to build fulfilling and crime-free lives by training them to do high quality , skilled , creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. The aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend.
Currently working in 32 British prisons, and engaging with over 500 prisoners each year, Fine Cell Work addresses key issues affecting prisoners’ offending behaviours: establishment and reinforcement of work skills, building relationships, and mental resilience.
Prisoners are taught by experienced volunteers and staff to work in their cells and in prison workshops. Having the opportunity to work independently helps them to regain control of their lives and allows them to maintain dignity. It also helps them establish a work ethic, and allows them to send money to their families or save for their release.
In 2010 inmates at HMP Wandsworth made a moving quilt about life inside for 'Quilts 1700- 2010 Hidden Histories, Untold Stories" at the V&A acquired for their collections with support from Friends of V&A
It consists of 63 panels, each one designed and made by a prisoner and expressing feelings and emotions about sleep – a difficult issue in prison. The panels were then sewn together and hand quilted, also by prisoners. It was not only a rare chance for inmates to express something of their lives, but also a chance for them to work collectively.
In the book each panel is featured full-page, and there are also many close-ups of the wonderful stitching and details. Some of the prisoners have added written explanations of their designs.
The introduction is by Tracy Chevalier and explains how the quilt came about and the feelings it arouses. Katy Emck, the director of Fine Cell Work contributes an essay on the charity and what it does, and there are quotations from prisoners explaining what Fine Cell Work has meant to them and how their lives have been turned around by learning the skills of stitching and quilting.
I've been carrying around an advance copy for several weeks now (it's a nice size to fit in the sewing bag I take on the train) and have found reading it a very moving experience. Sleep is a universal need but it was a real eye-opener realising how difficult it was for most of them, the contrast between those who could escape through dreams and those couldn't sleep and who succumbed to despair, feelings of shame . Their interpretations in stitch were varied but expressive.
Tracy in her introduction talks of the unseen layers of a quilt : the physical and emotional layers of the quilt , the history of the maker absorbed in the making, particularly with hand-made quilts which may take a long time to complete.
I do a lot of hand stitching myself ,I find the process calming and therapeutic as I'm sure many of the prisoners involved do too . In repurposing old quilts, I respect and try to work with the marks of the original , unknown, sewer. In many of the squares beautifully illustrated in this book, I get a strong sense of the maker, not just the subject but the decisions about colour choices, techniques, how it was stitched, the time involved. A collaborative project but very much about individual stories.
Fine Cell Work’s mission is to train prisoners in creative, commercial craftwork so they re-enter society with the self-belief and independence to lead fulfilling and crime-free lives. I encourage you to buy this book ( and for your friends) to help support the running of the Fine Cell Work Hub , the charity’s London-based crafts training studio for ex-offenders, to meet workers’ needs for post-prison support in order to translate their textile skills into real employment.