"There were a fair number of raised eyebrows back in 1997 when I described my new job selling prisoners’ embroidery, in Lady Anne Tree’s bold words, 'to top shops'. A sweet and rather lunatic idea, you could see them thinking. A close friend cited some benevolent Colombian project which had accumulated unsalable stock.
In fact, peoples’ assumption back then that Fine Cell Work would be an amateurish and short-lived affair shows how times have changed. Ethical craft businesses now abound across the world. Many of them are hugely successful and there are now a host of umbrella organizations to support them. Lady Anne Tree and her founder trustee Robert Oakeshott were visionaries. Optimistic, humanistic, unmaterialistic yet commercially savvy, they thought Fine Cell Work could make money for prisoners and itself, and that it could bring purpose and beauty to these impoverished places.
Which is not to say the beginnings of Fine Cell Work were not amateurish and that we did not accumulate stock… my Bloomsbury bedsit bath was host to overflowing binbags of tapestry wools, and guests in Lady Anne Tree’s Chelsea house complained of the eye-wateringly bright needlepoint cushions which flooded her spare room bed and floor. I can still see Lady Anne in her armchair, walled-in by bags of cushions which filled after our annual sale down the road in Chelsea Town Hall. She really couldn’t move and I could only see her hand waving above the bags. But she was very cheery and supportive. For we had made £3,000!!!!
Opening a Fine Cell Work package 20 years ago held the same mix of excitement and sorrow as it does today. There is the burst of prison-corridor smell as the brown paper splits open and the squares of dense, intense stitching unroll - each piece so individual and so frail – not yet pressed and plumped into the finished item but still creased by the hands that made it in such a small, cramped space. There is also delight, as unanticipated embellishments, or completely new objects (an embroidered hat, or book cover, or even a poem) tumble out.
Alongside this, there was and is the grandeur and heritage of the institutions supporting Fine Cell Work with donations, commissions, advice. The Livery Halls with their sweeping staircases, their cabinets of silverware, their drapes, their medallions and their ancient rituals. Hampton Court, home to the Royal School of Needlework and the Embroiderers Guild back then, whose workroom seemed to be in an ancient tower flooded with bright light and the contemplative silence of a convent as the needles flashed in and out of some exceedingly fine fabric. Dover Castle, which we filled with 50 embroidered cushions when English Heritage refurbished it in 2009, with its vast, stony halls and powerful defensive structure bringing echoes of prison – for it had served as a prison in years gone by, like so many other castles.
Increasingly, the sad and narrow world of prison seemed connected to worlds of wealth and privilege. The job of Fine Cell Work, it seemed, was to connect our prison stitchers with the wider world, and to help the wider world understand their humanity and their potential for good. As one of the Dover Castle embroiderers said,
“I took on this commission because it gave me a feeling of giving a positive contribution that would be enjoyed by many people; a sense of leaving a heritage of my own in some small way.”
“Leaving a heritage…” Isn’t that what we all want to do? But wasn’t it also extraordinary that people so excluded, vilified and segregated could make a lasting contribution to the legacy which humanity takes care to cherish and preserve.
It began to dawn on me that Fine Cell Work was keeping alive, perhaps even reviving, a powerful tradition. I learned that Mary Queen of Scots had embroidered furiously while she was imprisoned at Loch Leven, Bolton and Tutbury castles. And that English embroidery in its heyday in the 12th century had been a luxury commodity used to win diplomatic favours from the likes of Donald Trump. Most of all, I learned what embroidery meant to men and women in prison, how it could feed and nourish minds and hearts starved of purpose and love.
“It opens up another world, one that in many ways is long-forgotten. It is reinventing the craftsmanship of yesteryear. Then there is the pride and usefulness in seeing something of beauty come together, and the thought that my and my friends’ cell work will bring pleasure, now and hopefully long into the future, to the recipient. It allows us to once again do and start something new and be useful.”
Over and over again, the prisoners said they liked doing Fine Cell Work because it was “FOR CHARITY.” The sense that they were giving something back seemed to outweigh Fine Cell Work’s efforts to bring them commercial benefit! Over and over again they used the word “LOVE” about their work.
“I put many hours of love and concentration into the commission. As I saw it grow I became more and more excited. It was never far from my mind at all times. I puzzled, imagined different colours, stitches. All in all I am proud of this piece. The appreciation I got from everyone is the value of this hard work for me.”
In fact, for many, leaving prison was hard because it meant they had to leave their embroidery behind….
“It was a wonderful to do all that work. I am feeling very sad to leave you but that is life. I love this kind of work and I think when you do something with love it is better in the end. At this moment I am dreaming of embroidery...”
It was these prisoners, the ones who time and time again expressed their desire to continue stitching and to build on the craft they had learned with us inside, who urged us to think about how they could use their skills on release. These prisoners’ talent, drive and determination, which had so often been completely undiscovered till now, urged us to take seriously the question of waste. If we did not seek to support hem to use their skills on release, the talent and skills they had learned could all go to waste. Why not help them on release?
It feels fitting that, 20 years since this fragile, unlikely enterprise began, we are poised to move to new premises with a workshop where we can continue training and supporting our Fine Cell Workers when they leave prison. It feels fitting that our “graduates” are finding their way into upholstery, costume-making and soft furnishings work. And it feels fitting that the prisoners doing Fine Cell Work, whose commissions have been sold to the V&A, to English Heritage, and to top designers, have the chance to contribute to the beauty of the world, and to surmount the crimes and the personal difficulties which brought them to prison in the first place.
Our hope is that 20 years from now, craftwork from British prisons will be a fully established and chronicled route to rehabilitation, and that prisons in other parts of the world will copy and build on what we have learned."
By Dr Katy Emck OBE, Founding Director, Fine Cell Work