For 25 years, we have taught expert needlework skills to men and women in British prisons. Now, for the first time, this book tells the stories behind some of our most significant stitched works, such as a quilt depicting life at HMP Wandsworth, designed and created by our prison workforce.
This book is a story of rehabilitation through needlework. It explores how designers, contemporary artists and volunteers have worked with prisoners and helped them to gain new skills, rebuild their perception of themselves and create connections with the world beyond prison walls. It offers a remarkable insight into how prisoners have turned their lives around through the therapeutic power of needlework, teamwork and creativity.
Since 1997, we have provided highly-skilled, creative, paid work to more than 8,000 prisoners to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem. Working in 30 prisons across the UK, its aim is to enable prisoners to lead independent, crime-free lives.
The vast majority of our stitchers are complete beginners who gradually pick up needlework skills with the support of our volunteers. After spending time learning these skills, many become highly-skilled stitchers who are entrusted with demanding, high-profile commissions.
Some prisoners stitch alone, while others work as part of a larger group. In the book, we hear how one stitcher, Ben, spends 200 hours embroidering a fabric version of a photograph by artist Idris Khan. In contrast, tables of ten stitchers work flat-out together to deliver a bulk order of 500 embroidered woollen penguins destined for a gift shop in Antarctica.
Prisoners have the chance to earn money through their involvement in Fine Cell Work. For many inmates, though, stitching offers a great deal more. It is an opportunity to find peace, to focus, to still the internal mental chatter. As one prisoner comments, you can't sew and be angry at the same time.
In this book, you'll hear the perspectives of current and ex-prisoners, including some for whom Fine Cell Work has provided a springboard into a new, crime-free life.
Novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights and business writers have been tasked with telling the stories behind exemplary stitched works from the Fine Cell Work archive. Here are some of the writers and stories you'll find in the book.
- Tracy Chevalier, author of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', is also a quilter and a Patron of Fine Cell Work. She writes a chapter on The Sleep Quilt (above), which she commissioned from the charity. Seventy prisoners in eight prisons took part in the project.
- Esther Freud has written nine novels and a stage play, 'Stitchers', which is based on the life of Fine Cell Work Founder, Lady Anne Tree. Here, she writes about Little Geometrics, the first piece of needlework that prisoners are given to stitch.
- Louis de Bernières is the author of ten novels, including the international bestseller 'Captain Corelli’s Mandolin'. He writes about the 'Toby cushion', Fine Cell Work's first pet commission, which features his much-loved cat.
- Isabella Tree is an award-winning author whose latest book, 'Wilding - the Return of Nature to a British Farm', is published by Picador. She is a Patron of Fine Cell Work and the daughter of Lady Anne Tree, the charity’s founder. Isabella writes about a tablecloth covered in fantastical flower designs stitched by an ex-prisoner in a barrio of Bogotá.
- Elise Valmorbida is an award-winning writer, indie film-producer and designer. Her most recent novel, 'The Madonna of the Mountains', is published internationally. Her chapter focuses on Odyssey in Quilting, which was designed by artist Ai Weiwei (above) and embroidered by 13 prisoners.
- Rishi Dastidar is a copywriter and poet whose second book, 'Saffron Jack', is published by Nine Arches Press. Here, he writes a timeline of Fine Cell Work's 25 years and a specially commissioned poem: 'A twitch on the thread pulls us forward'.
Featured stitched projects include artworks designed by celebrated contemporary artists Ai Weiwei, Cornelia Parker and Idris Khan, as well as more intimate works such as kneelers for a private chapel, a royal wedding cushion, and children’s quilts made from their late father’s shirts.
The book showcases some of the charity’s most popular stitched products, including the prison calendar cushion (seen above) designed by A A Gill, the late writer and critic. He said that stitching is "like marking off the minutes; it corresponds to doing time".
Another chapter tells the story of the quilt (below) depicting HMP Wandsworth, which was created by 52 prisoners and subsequently exhibited at the V&A.
In the book, you will hear about Clive, one of the stitchers of the HMP Wandsworth quilt. He drew up a design using an architectural plan of the prison, which he found in the library. The hexagon shape was perfect as a quilting motif. Unfortunately, Clive's design was confiscated for a short time. A prison guard thought he was planning his escape and deemed the drawing a security risk.
Read more on this and the fascinating stories behind the other 24 Fine Cell Work featured projects when 'Threads of Time' is published in 2022.
'Threads of Time' is the latest creative initiative from award-winning not-for-profit 26, whose members take part in ‘crowd-writing’ projects, bringing together multiple writers to focus on themes, often with a social impact. Partners have included The V&A, Imperial War Museums, PEN International, The Foundling Museum and The Wildlife Trusts.
26 Board member and 'Threads of Time' editor Elise Valmorbida, says, “This is not just about the exquisite objects that Fine Cell Work stitchers produce. Our writers have been inspired and moved to tell very human stories of loss, lockdown, creativity, purpose and hope. At 26, we believe in the power of words to change lives for the better. With 'Threads of Time', we are celebrating the remarkable achievements of a vital charity and giving voice to stories that need to be told. This is a chronicle of quietly radical transformation.”