Conversations of Inspiration by Founding Director Katy Emck

Conversations of Inspiration by Founding Director Katy Emck

It’s been an honour to talk about Fine Cell Work and our prison stitchers on Holly Tucker’s Conversations of Inspiration podcast, and to reflect on how the charity started and how far it’s come. Holly’s enthusiasm about FCW shows that creative businesses working with prisoners have appeal in the world outside, and are indeed themselves a source of inspiration.

Listen to the Podcast: Unlocking Talent, Stitching Hope, with Katy Emck OBE, Founding Director of Fine Cell Work

 Almost twenty-five years ago Fine Cell Work was born out of a bedroom and a very unlikely-sounding idea. Fortunately for us, the idea of fine needlework in prions was taken up by a determined church-going volunteer called Tricia Pink and a governor of Maidstone prison who thought that prisoners having something to do was better than them having nothing to do – even if that something was sewing.

 From early on I felt like I was riding a runaway horse – bareback and without a bridle! This momentum was born of the prisoners’ hunger for something to do, and their gratitude for the money we paid them. It was also born of something more mysterious - the zen magic of sitting sewing for hours on end, with the heavy hours of cell-time passing more quickly. The prisoners kept on telling me that their stitching made them made prison more bearable, and made them feel hope.

“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” wrote Sam.

This sense of connection – to the past, to the future and most of all to other people – through skilled, creative work was something that gradually revealed itself to me as the prisoners wrote and talked about their experience.

“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” said Dinara.

The sense of connection which the customers felt was also a revelation. One customer wrote -

"We live in a very peaceful place, surrounded by water, and in all ways are very fortunate. I look at the cushions and know that its previous home was a bleaker place. I sincerely hope the life of the person who made it turns around and he finds a quiet and good life in the future."

Many of our early customers chose, spontaneously, to write and thank the stitchers for the products they bought. The prisoners were over the moon.

“The first thank-you I got... It was that I was in here and outside there’s someone with a smile on their face because of my work. That gave me a sense of purpose.”

Over the years, so many of the men and women we worked with said it was the first time they’d been thanked for anything. Their desire to give back, to give pleasure, to make a contribution, was in fact the opposite of the selfishness and exclusion we associate with prisoners and prison. It bowled me over.

“It gives me great pleasure in doing something for the general public to know that I am putting something back into society. It gives me a sense of worth to do something for you. I have a plan for the money to help the prisoners in Wandsworth prison. I am talking to the Chaplaincy in setting up a prisoners’ fund to help buy some radios and cassette players for them.”

Now, twenty-four years later, our prisoners are more than ever part of something which extends beyond prison and gives them hope that they can re-enter society not filled with fear and shame – but with new skills and something to be proud of. Their work’s been sold in Europe, America and the Middle East. In the V&A Museum, the Conran Shop and Fortnums. In Sothebys, in the Tate Modern and the Royal Palaces of London.

They are also part of the extended Fine Cell Work family, a team of skilled, professional staff supported by several hundred volunteers who are motivated by belief in the value of working in prisons and with prisoners. Demand for our products is at present greater than we have the capacity to meet.

Our recent fundraising appeal to “Keep the Sewing growing” has also exceeded our wildest expectations, showing us how many people want to support this work and believe in prisoner rehabilitation.

With help from our customers, our many supporters and of course Holly Tucker we will make sure that thousands more prisoners have the chance to do meaningful, skilled, creative work in the years to come.

Listen to the Podcast: Unlocking Talent, Stitching Hope, with Katy Emck OBE, Founding Director of Fine Cell Work





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