Fine Cell Work: Handmade healing
It’s true, the devil really does make work for idle hands, but prisoners up and down the UK are keeping themselves as busy as can be thanks to Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise set up in the 1960s that understands the benefits of being constructive all too well.
Following a visit to HMP Wandsworth’s women’s prison, where she worked with two inmates to produce needlepoint carpets that were later sold as collectors’ items, Lady Anne Tree was struck by the sheer amount of time wasted behind bars and felt that it was essential people were able to participate in paid employment during their incarceration.
The seeds of the idea for Fine Cell Work were sewn and the rather unlikely charity has now grown to become a resounding success, with cushions, bags, patchwork quilts and pictures selling all over the world for between £40 to £180. All prisoners – more than 400 of them take part in the scheme in 29 detention centres across England, Scotland and Wales – are taught and supported by members of the Embroiders and Quilters Guild, with the aim being to be more constructive, learn new skills and help support their families on the outside.
It may come as a surprise, but the majority – 75% – of Fine Cell Work participants are men. Karl, who served just under seven years, believes he was saved by sewing, saying: “Because I had things to do, I was not in prison in my head. And it all came from the sewing really. I was doing Fine Cell Work for six-and-a-half years. I was bored sitting in my cell, when you got nothing it’s hard. And you just sit there thinking about outside, children, wife and what you’re missing. But you can work through. All through one word – sorry. The only way I got to that was through sewing. That’s why I changed my life.”
Getting involved with the charity is relatively easy for those on the outside as well. A certain level of skill with a needle is required to be a volunteer, as is a certain type of temperament – patience, kindness and an open mind are all pre-requisites for the role. Volunteers visit prisons, on average, twice a month for a two-hour class, typically working with prisoners for around seven years, although the longest tenure for a volunteer is so far 11 years.
People without the necessary embroidery skills can also help support the cause, by purchasing some of the finished products. Fine Cell Work holds numerous craft fairs throughout the year, with the next one taking place at the 20th Century Theatre in London’s Notting Hill on November 9th and 10th. Billed as a “Christmas sale with a social conscience”, the event is a showcase for applique bags, hand-stitched cushions, embroidered cosies and pretty keepsakes made by prisoners from exclusive patterns provided by the likes of Cath Kidston, Celia Birtwell, Tom Dixon and Daisy de Villeneuve.
Visitors can also sign up for an embroidery stitch class with Fine Cell Work volunteer and author of Adventures in Needlework Jessica Aldred and go to a talk by Sue Pritchard, curator of contemporary textiles, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Crafters in the north of England who can’t make it to London are also catered for as well, with another exhibition and Christmas fair taking place at The Sage Gateshead on November 18th, featuring a talk by Fine Cell Work chief executive officer Katy Emck, detailing the history and philosophy of the charity.
So, can craft and needlework make the world a better place? They certainly seem to be doing their best and groups like Fine Cell Work can only be a positive step in the very right direction.