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A Stitch in Time

Fine Cell Work is unique in Britain’s prisons: for hundreds of inmates, it provides the only way to earn money from within a prison cell. It’s also, explains Joanna Moorhead, about a great deal more besides.

The warehouse air is chilly, but what’s missing in warmth is more than made up for in the extraordinary visual display of vibrant colours and intricate craftwork on display. On every shelf and in every cubby-hole there’s another beautiful, meticulously-made item: here an exquisitely-worked, red and green floral-patterned cushion cover; there, a geometric footstool with all the colours of the rainbow. Across the room, a bright turquoise bag embroidered with tiny pink flowers; nearby, green fern leaves in relief on perfectly-pressed ivory linen napkins.

We are in south London, in what is surely a high-end interior decorator’s paradise. And indeed, it certainly is that: apparently a senior Royal once said he could hardly move at home for this manufacturer’s cushions). But what’s most remarkable of all is that every stitch in this vast panoply of luxuriously-decorated fabrics was done by a prisoner or ex-prisoner. And while the needlework on display speaks to the extraordinary skills of these sewers, it’s also about something far more precious than beautiful soft furnishings. Because these goods have given their creators the most precious gifts of all: a sense of purpose, a sense of self-esteem, and a sense of hope.

It’s all thanks to Fine Cell Work, an organisation unique in that it provides work that residents of British prisons can do from inside their individual cells. ‘What we give is the chance for purposeful, paid activity,’ says Victoria Gillies, Fine Cell Work’s executive director. ‘There’s a great deal of wasted time in prison – a lot of sitting around, a lot of not being able to get out of your cell, sometimes for 17 or more hours in 24, and we give people something meaningful to do with those hours.’

To feel good about ourselves, Victoria points out, we all need purpose, and the sense that we are doing something that we can take pride in. Sadly that’s exactly what’s lacking for many of the 80,000-plus people currently held in prisons across Britain: and though learning new skills, and practising different ways of working are widely acknowledged to be important motivators of change in the lives of people serving prison sentences, the system often fails miserably to provide these opportunities.

Step forward Fine Cell Work, founded by a prison visitor called Lady Anne Tree 25 years ago, after she had campaigned for two decades for prisoners to have the right to earn money for work done in their cells. She had long-standing links with the interiors industry, and had brokered commissions for two top-of-the-range carpets for the company Colefax and Fowler – and she realised the idea had huge potential.

Today Fine Cell Work operates in 30 prisons, with around 400 individuals. Most are recruited via prison staff or by word of mouth, and they begin by sewing with learner kits, before progressing to paid work. And the more the sewers do, and the higher skilled they are, the more they earn. Reflecting the male-heavy prison population, around 95 per cent of stitchers are men: some have commented on how unlikely it laws that they’d ever find themselves doing intricate embroidery, or how much they’d enjoy it.

The organisation’s website, festooned with wonderful cushion covers, tells its own story. Many of the designs have been created by celebrities, sometimes with a prison theme: one of the most popular is the writer AA Gill’s piece Prison Calendar, which depicts lines measuring the days of a sentence. Lady Elizabeth Anscombe commissioned a pair of cushions featuring a badger and a duck as a wedding gift for the then Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, while in 2009 English Heritage commissioned a range of medieval-style artefacts for Dover Castle. When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum held a major show on quilt making in 2010, one of the star exhibits was a huge wall-hanging depicting a bird’s-eye view of HMP Wandsworth, created by 52 Fine Cell Work inmates. And the first Fine Cell Work pet commission was of Toby, the cat of the novelist Louis de Bernieres, immortalised on a cushion cover.

Several commissions have been for churches, among them some of the most significant works the organisation has ever been involved with. The chapel at Knole House in Sevenoaks in Kent, home of the Sackville-Wests, boasts three elongated, dusky pink kneelers: in the centre of two of them sits the Sackville crest, while the third shows a sunburst image or monstrance. The charts for the stitching on these pieces featured numerical and pictographic charts, essential for the many stitchers who can’t read. One stitcher reported afterwards that the time for reflection and focus had meant he’d been able to ‘unpick something bad while sewing something good’.

Another standout commission for Fine Cell Work came in 2021 from St Mary’s Church, Welwyn, and comprised an altar-cloth featuring the four seasons of the year, inspired by the colours of the church’s stained glass windows. Also produced were vestments, and the project included what’s known as ‘free machine embroidery’ where stitchers could work without designs, to create a crazy-paving type effect.

One of the most fulfilling elements of being involved in a Fine Cell Work commission, explains Victoria, is being involved in something that connects with the outside world: prisons often feel very cut off and isolating places. ‘We try to involve prisoners in as much of the process as possible, so they’re properly connected to what’s going on,’ explains Victoria.

Prisoners work in their cells but in many prisons there are also regular workshops, meeting for two hours every fortnight. Expert tutors are on hand for guidance, and stitchers can gather and exchange ideas and information about the pieces they’re working on. As Victoria explains, there are very few opportunities for prisoners to be part of a team in this way, and even fewer opportunities for them to input: prisoners are not people who are often asked to give of their wisdom or experience, and we all gain from being asked to give of our knowledge.

And for Fine Cell Work, it doesn’t all end with the prisoner’s release. One of the most vital, and yet often missing, elements of prison is continuity between being on the inside and after release, and the organisation helps bridge that essential gap by taking some of its stitchers on to work in its south London workshop after they’re released. Since its ‘Open the Gate’ project began five years ago, more than 75 ex-prisoners have been given jobs, and many have gone on to find work elsewhere in the textiles and interiors industry. Of those who’ve been part of the scheme, only 2 per cent have gone on to reoffend, and 40 per cent have gone into employment: impressive indeed, when you take into account that in general only 16 per cent of ex-prisoners find a job post release, and around 46 per cent go on to reoffend.

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