The prison programmes for rehabilitation
Our programmes train prisoners and prison leavers in high-quality needlework skills as means for rehabilitation.
We then support and pay them to create beautiful handmade products, designed by world renowned artists. These luxury products are sold to the public, designers, artists, and heritage organisations, many of whom commission bespoke pieces.
We work with prisoners of all identities, lived experiences and abilities. Together, our stitchers form the largest workforce of hand-embroiderers in Europe.
Since our organisation began in 1997, we have worked with over 8,000 prisoners.
Paying our stitchers for their labour and craftspersonship is an essential part of our mission. Our stitchers earn approximately one third of the proceeds from sales. Stitchers are paid per item and receive their wages as soon as we receive the completed piece, regardless of whether it is sold or not. The more complex the piece, the more they can earn. We also award bonuses for work which is completed to a particularly high standard!
The money our stitchers earn is theirs to spend as they wish. Some send money home to loved ones, some use it to purchase items from the prison canteen, whilst others save it in preparation for their release.
All our stitchers are offered the opportunity to access and be supported to complete formal training courses accredited by the Open College Network (OCN).
We achieve our mission through our prison programmes:
Guided by our staff team, our skilled volunteer teachers visit different prisons across the UK every two weeks, delivering needlework training sessions to cell groups of 10-15 prisoners. The volunteers train, coach and provide troubleshoot support, patiently sharing their expertise with the group members.
Each stitcher begins their journey by learning the basic stitches needed to complete simple designs like our Embroidered Lavender Bag, before then progressing onto more complex stitches and advanced designs like our Animaux Hand-Embroidered Cushions.
Last year (2022), 265 returned work compared to 175 in 2021!
In between the volunteer-led sessions the cell groups work together, helping each other to practice and master their needlework skillset from inside their prison cells. Stitchers who progress quickly can step up into a 'class coordinator' role, taking on the responsibility of assisting the volunteer teacher and acting as a peer mentor to their fellow group members.
The UK prison system is complicated and prisoners can often be moved from one prison to another. Sometimes one of our stitchers is transferred to a prison where we don’t have a cell group operating but they still want to continue stitching. In these situations, they can apply to become a lone stitcher.
Our lone stitchers work independently, communicating directly with our staff team through phone calls and prison staff. Being a lone stitcher means being able to work successfully without the support of a volunteer teacher or cell group, and that requires a particularly high skill level.
In fact, our lone stitchers are often our most confident and talented stitchers. We frequently entrust them with completing our most complex and high-profile commissions, like Odyssey in Quilting, 2019 which was created in collaboration with world-renowned contemporary artist, documentarian and activist, Ai Weiwei.
Our prison workshops employ around 25 prisoners at any one time. These employees are accomplished stitchers, trained in our unique production system and supervised by our staff team.
Workshop stitchers are responsible for many stages in our production system. From making up needlework kits, which are then sent to cell groups and lone stitchers for completing, to creating products from scratch, like our Pomegranate Linen Table Napkins. They also carry out textile production using sewing and embroidery machines, in order to transform the finished needlework pieces, completed by cell groups and lone stitchers, into our beautiful products.
Open the Gate Post-Release Programme
We provide prison leavers with post-release support and training, bridging the gap between prison and further employment, training and education opportunities.
Our Open the Gate programme has supported over 70 prison leavers whom we call ‘apprentices’ since it began in 2017. Our ‘apprentices’ have a less than 2% reoffending rate (compared to a national average of around 40%). Around 43% of our apprentices have now gone on to secure employment (against a national average of 17%) and a further 8.5% have gone into further training or volunteering.
The programme is run from our London-based community workshop and delivered by our specialist staff team. Our ‘apprentices’ are provided with:
Volunteering and work experience. This can involve textile production, similar to the responsibilities completed by a prison workshop stitcher, but also roles involving admin, stock management, packing and dispatch, events, and sales.
Formal training courses accredited by the Open College Network (OCN).
Regular employment mentoring and support to access paid work.
Click here to find out more about Open the Gate and how to join the programme!