'Stitchers' by Esther Freud

'Stitchers' by Esther Freud

An exclusive archival recording of 'Stitchers', the fantastic debut play by renowned writer Esther Freud, was broadcast by Jermyn Street Theatre on 10, 11 & 12 September 2020.

Read on to hear what inspired Esther to tell the story of our formidable founder, Lady Anne Tree: 

"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 Esther Freud and is based on the true story of Fine Cell Work Founder, Lady Anne Tree. It was originally performed at The Jermyn Street Theatre, 30 May - 23 June 2018.



  • Carol Cox on


  • Carol Cox on

    I am gasping in awe at the beautiful photographs of the amazing stitching, gorgeous colours and skills on display. I am a life time sewer and knitter but have much to learn! I completely understand the emotional and psychological benefits of creating a beautiful piece of art. What a fantastic project! Good luck to all those who participate, I hope the joy of creation will bring some peace and self esteem.

  • Catherine Swann on

    Busy hands allow the mind to be calm and roam free. What a brilliant concept for enabling those deprived of their freedom to come to terms with the enormity of this and perhaps to heal from past traumas and move on. Not to mention the skills acquired and the beauty of the work created. I hope this project goes from strength to strength.

  • Elizabeth Richardson on

    I think it is wonderful – another example of how much talent people often possess without it being realised because they have not had opportunities earlier in their life. It doesn’t seem enough for some groups in our society that people are losing their liberty – the worst thing that you can take away from anyone. I have known for some time that the standard of their work is extraordinarily high. I have seen photographs of beautifully renovated antique bed hangings in National Trust houses. I hope there is some acknowledgement of the people who did such work.

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