"I’ve been a supporter of Fine Cell Work since its inception, but it was only once I had the idea of writing a play about prisoners stitching that I became actively involved.
My first prison visit was to the Isle of White. The volunteer I accompanied went every fortnight. There was no sewing room so she walked from wing to wing, handing out wool and kits, offering advice, while I trailed nervously behind.
On the second wing a man was waiting for us. ‘This cream wool,’ his fury was palpable, ‘is not the same shade as the cream wool that I’ve been using.’ And it was true. He’d been working on a cushion with two artichokes in its centre and now the background was uneven. The volunteer commiserated and promised to re-order but a look of panic came into his eyes, ‘What will I do till it arrives?’
‘I have five more wings to visit,’ she stayed calm, ‘but If there’s anything left over at the end of the day...’
‘I’ll be waiting,’ he assured her.
As we moved on she whispered that he used to be a self-harmer, but since he had his sewing…
On every wing there were men waiting, thread and kits in hand. Each item they completed fetched them a fee, but it was clear they weren’t just there for the money. ‘It’s the only place anyone calls me by my name,’ one man told me when I asked. Another: ‘It’s the colours, everything else in here is grey.’ One inmate was stitching for up to 40 hours a week. The Christmas before, he’d sent his daughters a present for the first time in 10 years.
At the end of the day there was one kit left, and as we walked out through the prison we saw our man, waiting, his hands stuck through the bars.
‘I do have something for you, although I’m afraid it’s a design for three artichokes.’ He lifted it in, and thanked her.
Since then I have become a regular visitor at the sewing class at one of London’s high security prisons. What I see there is sobering - loneliness, violence, confusion, despair. But in one small room, on Tuesday afternoons there is the hum of quiet industry, laughter, chat, and the production of astonishingly beautiful work.
‘I don’t know how I’d have got through the sentence without my embroidery,’ one man told me, and on one of my last visits another looked up from a butterfly he was making. ‘The time flew by!’ And a look of amazement crossed his face."
Stitchers is a play written by renowned author Esther Freud and is based on the true story of Fine Cell Work Founder, Lady Anne Tree.
Stitchers will be on at The Jermyn Street Theatre from 30 May - 23 June 2018.