Stitching in Cells: Teaching Prison Inmates The Art of Quilt Making

It has long been recognized that the creation of quilts can have numerous personal and communal benefits; Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise founded on the belief that prison rehabilitation is one of them. This program teaches stitching to inmates, 80% of whom are men who spend anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week on their needlework per week. Prisoners work in their cells as a way to earn an income, but also in order to gain independence, practical skills, and hope for the future. The organizers of this remarkable program, which includes 50 volunteer instructors and is now conducted in 29 prisons throughout the UK, believe that the sense of dignity and accomplishment gained by its benefactors will help facilitate their rehabilitation and reentrance into society. Here, Design Coordinator Elena Hall discusses the program’s mission and its profound effects.

What was the inspiration for this program? Who came up with the idea of bringing stitching and quilting into a prison environment?

Fine Cell Work was founded by Lady Anne Tree, who first had the idea in the 1960s when she was a prison visitor at HMP Holloway prison. With the help of the Royal School of Needlework, she enabled two lifers to make needlepoint carpets which were then sold as collectors items in New York. However, in those days the prisoners were not allowed to receive money for the work. This determined Lady Anne to establish an organization in which prisoners could learn a skill to the highest level and be paid for their efforts. Fine Cell Work started teaching quilting to prisoners nine years ago.

What is the initial reaction of most of the prisoners when presented with the opportunity to learn needlework? Are they reluctant or intrigued?

Many prisoners are initially drawn to program as a means to earn money, but they very soon develop a love of the craft and come to depend upon it to pass the time during the 18 hours on average that they spend locked in their cells .

Do you have any memorable or remarkable stories from your work that you would like to share?

We have recently started working with a couple of former prisoners who are continuing to quilt in their spare time and one who is even working to start up his own soft furnishings business. We have also worked on a collaboration between a designer and a former prisoner to develop a contemporary screen printed quilt with an interesting flying birds design. 

Seeing a prisoner use their own creativity and initiative for a project of their own, for example a quilt for a family member or prison arts competition is always rewarding as it shows that the FCW class has stirred a creativity and interest that is not just motivated by the potential to earn money.

Fine Cell Work was commissioned to create a piece for the recent exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Quilts, 1700-2010.” Would you please tell us a little bit about this commission?

The V&A commissioned a quilt from us to be made in prison, so the inmates at HMP Wandsworth created a quilt which depicts prison life (shown left). We also held a private viewing and reception at the V&A Museum on March 15th where we sold and exhibited a range of embroidered cushions and accessories.

What changes do you notice in the prisoners as they take up quilting?

There are many risk factors associated with offending which are diminished by Fine Cell Work. Needlework provides a calming alternative focus which alleviates the chances of addiction. It also has therapeutic effects which reduces incidences of breakdown and self-harm, promoting overall mental health. Family relationships are improved as many inmates send their earnings to their families, while others save in order to be able to pay rent and therefore avoid homelessness upon release. Needlwork also diminishes social exclusions, reintegrating inmates into the structures of work and community. Finally, since FCW requires basic numeracy and literacy skills, it can motivate inmates to seek further education while in prison.


Elena also shared some quotes from inmates involved in Fine Cell Work:

“Prison is effectively a negative period in many peoples’ lives and because one can see the finished article, taking pride in what one has produced, this produces a feeling of positivity within this desert of negativity.”                                                                                                  

“It expands your creativity, which you would not give the time of day on the outside.”

“It’s the creation of the work for the V&A quilt that not only gave us great pride, but also purpose while we are serving our time. We used our surroundings and feelings to come up with the ideas for the patches that go to make up the quilt.”

“Stitching has given me confidence. Because people supported me I have supported others.”

 “I used to be down the block all the time, but when I started doing Fine Cell Work I stopped getting in fights. I haven’t been in a fight for two years.” —Inmate, HMP Kingston

“I find I am more relaxed and tolerant in my dealings with others and would attribute this positive change to Fine Cell Work quilting… There is no doubt I find it soothing and calming in times of stress.” —Nigel, HMP Wandsworth


All images are courtesy of Fine Cell Work.



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