Sewing by Sue: A Stitcher's Story

Sue embroidering the napkin

Previously an in-cell stitcher and later an Open The Gate 'apprentice', Sue has been a part of the Fine Cell Work community for many years. Here’s her story, in her words. 

On the waiting list 

In prison, I made a friend who always seemed busy with tapestry canvas and threads, and I was curious about what she was doing. I would sit and watch her for hours. In my mind, embroidery was for older people – people like my nan. But here was someone who was as young as I was and she was passionate about it. One day she passed me a needle and told me to have a go. Little did I know how important stitching would become to me. My friend told me that two ladies from Fine Cell Work came every two weeks to teach embroidery in prison, and that she was the class coordinator who helped them run the class.

I was hooked after my first stitch and so I applied to go on the waiting list for the class. It was a long 14 months before I got into the Fine Cell Work group, so when I did start, I was ready to go. My friend had helped me learn to stitch through the waiting period.

Joining the group

The two volunteers who ran our group were Rosemary and Alison. They were so welcoming and friendly. They were also good at making sure we produced good quality work. I can still hear Alison say ‘it’s called Fine Cell Work for a reason!'

This was the first time in custody that I felt normal; that I felt human.

The first project I made was a geometric bookmark and then I made a pencil case. I started progressing through the Fine Cell Work products for beginner, intermediate and advanced stitchers. I started with canvas work and I loved it. I remember how daunting it was when I worked on the Onion needlepoint cushion. I was keen to continue learning and so I also learnt hand embroidery. I kept doing both needlepoint and embroidery while in prison. The variety of products I could stitch was wonderful.

As I became more confident, I was able to work on some commissioned pieces. It was fantastic to feel that I had contributed to pieces that were then auctioned at Sotheby’s as part of the Human Touch exhibition. I stitched parts of the chaise lounge designed by the artist Annie Morris. It felt amazing to later be able to see it finished.

Stitching was also a time of bonding. I can still remember the time when my friend and I worked on one of Carolina Mazzolari’s pieces. It was a life-size silhouette and my friend and I sat stitching for hours – she at one end of a bed, me at the other, stitching away!

Open the Gate – and beyond 

As much as custody is the last place you want to be, the thought of leaving prison on release was daunting. I had read about the Open the Gate post-release programme in one of the newsletters and decided to apply three months before my release. It gave me purpose outside and helped me make the transition from custody. When I got the phone call to inform me of my starting date, it really gave me the stability I needed. It gave me something to look forward to. 

I was really nervous on the first day but knowing that I was in the same position as other ‘apprentices’ on the programme helped. The warmth and friendliness of the FCW team was amazing. This was not a place of judgement. 

I continued to stitch during my time at the Hub, and even learnt machine stitching, how to mount work, make a footstool and many other things. I loved working on the Animaux tablecloth. Being at the Hub meant that I now got to see the finished products. This place had such a family atmosphere. It really added value to my life. I wasn’t here because I had nothing else to do – I was here because I loved it and never wanted to leave!

The main thing I gained was confidence and a sense of worth. This really helped me fit back into society, to go look for employment.

I am now working as a sales assistant. It’s hard work but I am pleased to have a job. Since graduating from Open the Gate I’ve continued to stitch for Fine Cell Work – I think I always will! I’ve stitched samples, designed and made Christmas cards (I have new designs launching this year).

Earlier this year, I got a call about stitching floral napkins – a new range that is ready for launch. I loved embroidering these napkins in my favourite stitches – French knots and stem stitch.

Fine Cell work has been a lifesaver.

Being in custody made me feel so worthless, adding to the upbringing I had where I felt put down and insignificant.

That first stitch gave me a sense of worth for the first time in my life.

Anyone who engages with Fine Cell work will certainly benefit from the experience. I just love this place so much. I am so glad I still get to be a part of it!

Christmas Cards designed and stitched by Sue


  • Ann on

    I’m really happy for you Sue, that a custody experience that started out draining you of confidence – on top of a life that had already made things hard for you – ended up growing your confidence so much you’re now on top of things, with a passion, a job and some really lovely talents. Sending you really warm wishes and congratulating you on your success, and thank you for telling your story.

  • Jane on

    What a wonderful uplifting positive piece to read..thanQ for sharing good news into a world that seems intent on focusing on the bad, negative and sad.

  • Janet Harwood on

    Such a lovely story to read, thank you Sue for sharing. Stitching in any form can be a comfort, your skills are amazing Sue . You and all at fine cell work should feel very proud of your skills and what you have achieved, especially having found yourselves in very difficult circumstances prior to discovering the therapeutic power of stitching. It must feel wonderful to see you designs realised.

  • christine gandy on

    A fantastic story and good luck xx

  • Daisy on

    I loved reading Sue’s story .Her embroidery is beautiful ! Sending her a “proud of you hug” and wishing all the best for the future .

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