Saxmundham: Sale of prisoners’ handmade goodies – and talk by Esther Freud about Fine Cell Work

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners.

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners. - Credit: Archant

It’s pointless locking prisoners away with little to occupy their hands, hearts and minds. One charity is helping to give them hope and skills through... sewing. STEVEN RUSSELL speaks to one of its supporters and a former inmate convinced it changed his life

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners.

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners. - Credit: Archant

The novelist Esther Freud, who splits her time between London and the Suffolk coast, has been somewhere else recently. Behind bars. Not for any misdemeanour (naturally) but to learn more about prisoners enjoying a sense of purpose because of sewing and embroidery. Her visits have not been without their lighter moments.

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners.

Examples of Fine Cell Work soft-furnishings produced by prisoners. - Credit: Archant

“When I arrived at one wing, this rather macho and threatening-looking man said ‘We’ve got a real problem...’ and my heart sort of fluttered. ‘Yeah... the new fawn wool does not match with the old fawn wool...’!”

Esther Freud and husband David Morrissey

Esther Freud and husband David Morrissey - Credit: PA

It just goes to show we shouldn’t pre-judge – and the charity Fine Cell Work certainly doesn’t. It trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework in order to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem. Stitchers spend an average of 20 hours a week doing embroidery – and get a bit of money for anything sold. The highest earners put in up to 40 hours a week.

The charity feels it allows inmates to serve their dues with dignity and purpose, with the earnings giving hope, skills and independence. It helps them connect with society and, with luck, leave jail with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.


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FCW says: “The pursuit of skill becomes an alternative way of life to the lack of opportunity and freedom in prison. It offers a chance to internalise a work ethic…”

Needlework “requires focus, rhythm and accuracy. It is the antithesis of the roughness, the carelessness and the loss of control which characterise offending behaviour”. Fine Cell Work is done in 29 jails and by 300 prisoners at any one time – 97% of them men. The charity gets 40% of its funding through sales and the rest via donations and from trusts.

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Prisoners’ work has been sold internationally and to interior designers such as Nina Campbell. There have been commissions from organisations such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Trust and English Heritage – and wedding presents have been made for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. There are prisoners’ products in the Mayor of London’s residence, Mansion House.

Stitchers receive 37% of the sale price. The rest is reinvested in training workshops, materials and the development of the enterprise.

Esther, a long-time supporter who next Friday is giving a talk at a Fine Cell Work sale in Suffolk, is amazed by its success. “On my visits, the spectrum of artistic talents of a large group of men has been wide. You’ll find people who make things you could never imagine.”

The idea came in the 1960s from the late Lady Anne Tree, a prison visitor to Holloway and a committee member of the Royal School of Needlework. She noticed how much of inmates’ time was wasted and thought they could do a skilled job in their cell, get paid for it and receive the money upon release. Embroidery work, she realised, could be easily transported in a bag when prisoners moved between jails.

Lady Anne, whose mother-in-law owned interior design and decoration business Colefax & Fowler, believed there was a market for top-quality workmanship.

She managed to engineer a commission for two needlepoint carpets that were sold by Colefax and Fowler as collectors’ items in New York, but the two prisoners who made it were at that time not allowed to be paid for their endeavours. Cue many years of campaigning that paid off in 1995 when the Home Office agreed that inmates could earn a wage for their labours. Fine Cell Work was registered as a charity and in 1997 began to operate, based in a bedsit in Bloomsbury. It was at this point, more or less, that Esther first heard about it. She knew, vaguely, the lady responsible for the day-to-day running and agreed to give a reading at a fund-raising event attended by other writers, such as former Suffolk teacher Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. “It turned out to be Lady Anne Tree’s charity. She and her husband were great friends of my father’s. (The late painter Lucian Freud.) When I went along, I hadn’t quite taken this in. It’s a small world. I remember being really struck at the time, when I went to do the reading in a really draughty church hall in Eaton Square, by what a brilliant charity it was.

“I’ve always loved making things – loved embroidery, sewing and knitting – so the idea they were making it possible for people in prison to do this really caught my imagination. I remember thinking ‘Yes, that is exactly what I would find soothing if I were in prison: repetitive, yet also beautiful and creative.’ Over the years I’ve heard more about Fine Cell Work and I’ve noticed with real pleasure that it has really taken hold of the imagination. Particularly in the last five years there’s been a lot of press (coverage).

“One of the things Lady Anne Tree was determined to achieve was that work would always be of the most exquisite quality; and it is. These cushions and quilts and exquisite creations are in the palace, and the homes of actors and rock stars.” In 2010 the “Wandsworth Quilt”, made in the London jail, was exhibited in the big British Quilts exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This, says Esther, was “a huge deal”.

“I went to see it and remember looking at this incredibly beautiful quilt, full of witty, moving pieces from men in Wandsworth prison.

“I think it must have been around that time that I thought I really wanted to write something about it in a fictional way. I’ve just finished a novel, and while I’ve been finishing it, I’ve started researching.

“It would be about the life of men in prison who become involved in embroidery. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do it! It’s at the very early stages.”

It will likely highlight Lady Anne’s campaign and the stories of prisoners whose lives have been changed as a result. But it will definitely be, at heart, a fictional vehicle.

“I love to create a story. That will be my way in. And you have more freedom, because you don’t have to stick to the absolute facts… They free you and constrain you.”

Esther’s information-gathering prison visits, begun in the past year, have taken her to Wandsworth, and to Albany on the Isle of Wight. For a novelist, the stories and lives have proved fascinating.

“There’s an interesting story of a man who came on board to try his hand at embroidery. It’s not an easy thing for a man to volunteer for; it’s not the most macho of activities to take up. But one of the ways people who start doing embroidery in prison can deal with any bullying and teasing is to say ‘Well, you know what? I made 25 quid this week. What did you make?’ That really helps.

“That’s what Lady Anne spent almost a lifetime campaigning for – that people in prison should be allowed to be paid for the work they do, and that it should be in a savings fund, so they can use some of it while they’re there – for phonecards, for example – and so they have some when they leave and are not immediately thrust into a spiral of poverty and, possibly, crime.

“I’ve been looking through the archives. You know, to really make a difference, you really have to work hard. It took years and years of letters that she wrote to the Government. Incredible.” That said, Esther thinks anyone taking up sewing in jail just for the cash tends not to stick at it. “The money is a way of making things possible, but actually it’s because they are a creative person and get something very special from doing this work.

“There was one young man who was very agitated, but the prison officers thought he could maybe have a go. He became extremely adept at embroidery and made the most beautiful things. It calmed him down to such an extent that he thought he could maybe try another class.

“This ‘new calm’ that the embroidery had created made it possible for him to take more classes. He ended up getting 13 qualifications in subjects. You wouldn’t even think there were that many! It was utterly life-changing for him, with the confidence he got.

“There’s one beautiful design I was looking at. A man said he embroidered (a picture of) himself, sleeping but with one eye open. He said you could never relax in prison. It was a hard place in which to be peaceful and calm. He said that when he’s stitching, he forgets about things and goes into a peaceful place.” There have been many positive stories.

“There was a man who was quite agitated because he’d come to the end of quite a large piece of embroidery and was worried there wouldn’t be a new kit for him to get involved in.

“The lady who was the volunteer I was with promised that by the end of the day it would come – she’d find him some more.

“When we left at the end of a long day, he was there, standing at the entrance to his wing, with his hands through the bars, waiting for this embroidery kit to be placed in his hand. It was so visually moving – that he would be able to go back to his cell with this kit and all the threads, and he would be able to start making something.”

Esther hopes to talk to former inmates who have continued to sew after being released and for whom needlework might lead to a career. She’d also like to speak to quite a skilled stitcher at Brixton who worked on a commission “from an extremely wealthy person for a king-sized quilt that was bigger than the inmate’s cell. The idea that he’d be sitting there with this quilt flowing over his whole cell and kind of bunched up at the door, that’s an amazing image!” The author acknowledges that some prisoners in some jails are locked in cells for long periods, with little to occupy them, but was cheered by many aspects of prison life she witnessed. “At Albany I was quite impressed at how many chances there were for education – for people to learn how to cook and so on. There was even a room where you could expertly learn how to clean windows, floors, polish things... They’d really thought things through, in terms of giving people skills they might be able to use when they came out. I was quite cheered up!

“One man said ‘I want to talk about my embroidery but I don’t want to be late for my book club!’ I thought ‘This is fantastic!’

“It has grown and will continue to grow. I’m sure it will. Prison officers are seeing a benefit, in the peacefulness of their prisons.

“The lovely thing about Fine Cell Work is that no-one talks about what anyone has done [as in offending] – ‘Let’s just make today inspiring and bearable.’”

A Fine Cell Work exhibition and sale is being held from 9.30am to 4.30pm on Friday, December 6.

It features tapestry, needlepoint and embroidery produced in prisons, including cushions and home accessories, Christmas gifts and hand-stitched decorations.

It’s at By The Crossways, Kelsale, near Saxmundham, IP17 2PL. (Off Clay Hills.) Entry is free.

Novelist Esther Freud will be talking about her connections with the charity and her recent prison visits at 11am on the day.

• An average Fine Cell Work cushion contains 40,000 stitches

• FCW makes 2,000 hand-embroidered cushions each year

• Prisoners say doing embroidery is ‘like a meditation’ – ‘it calms you down’

• This year, FCW has had commissions for embroidered clothes, shoes, bedspreads, furniture covers, banners, rugs and quilts, as well as cushions

Martin says his time inside prison would have been very much darker had he not found sewing. “I would have been more depressed and, possibly, once released, have thought ‘Life’s better on the inside; I’ll go commit more crimes just to get back inside.’ But with the opportunities Fine Cell Work’s given me, I want to prove to myself and them I can stay straight and improve myself.”

So far, so good. A gardener by trade, he’s been out about 18 months and has been doing part-time voluntary work for the charity. Fine Cell Work has helped him get a City & Guilds qualification in handmade curtain-making. Now he has a bursary for a higher-level course.

Martin would like to forge a career producing soft furnishings. “I’m getting on now, so I’m feeling the aches and pains, so it’s nice not to be on your hands and knees, pulling weeds out,” he laughs. Fine Cell Work has given him a sewing-machine to use and in his spare time he is teaching himself cross-stitching. “I’ve either got a needle in my hand, when I’m at home, or my dinner!”

It was by chance that Martin came to sewing and embroidery. With his background, he asked if he could work in the prison gardens. “Unfortunately, because everyone wants to be outside in the summertime, the waiting list is a mile long.”

In fact, the only vacancies were in a newish workshop, open perhaps a matter of weeks. Keen to do something rather than nothing, he went along, having never before used a sewing-machine. He took to it like the proverbial duck to water. Martin started off by making “envelope cushions”, made of three pieces of fabric, like a pillowcase. Mind you, at that stage there were only three colours of fabric – light blue, dark blue and cream – so there wasn’t much visual variety!

Later, charity Barnardo’s supplied fabric (in different colours!) to have items made. The prisoners produced a range including purses, aprons, scarves, envelope cushions with and without piping, and zipped cushions. “I think we sent them 50 cushion covers and within a week they sold.”

As the weeks went by, the number of inmates coming into the workshop grew and Martin showed them how to use the sewing-machines. Fine Cell Work ordered some cushions, too. Everything mushroomed. By the time he had served his sentence, he was heavily involved in the running of the workshop and had taught 30-plus other prisoners how to use sewing-machines, how to make items and so on.

Roles were found for anyone keen to get involved. A prisoner who perhaps couldn’t handle the machines, had fingers too thick for needlework or couldn’t deal with the pedal, could work on tasks such as making up kits or be put on machine-embroidery, typing data into a computer. “We didn’t want to lose anyone who came into the workshop. I think only two didn’t want to be there, but they were the kind of people who didn’t want to work in anything. Everybody else wanted to learn.”

Martin certainly did. “Fine Cell changed my life when I was inside. They give you a lot of encouragement; a lot of positive feedback about the work you’ve presented. It was nice to receive that – being told you’re doing a good job. It’s great.” What about macho hang-ups about men sitting with fabric and thimbles? Were they a problem? “It was totally the opposite. You’d get guys walking past the cells and saying ‘You’re in that sewing-machine workshop… I’ve got this shirt that needs repairing. Can you do anything for me?’ They were green with envy that you could do something they couldn’t!

“Other people said ‘I’ve got a family member on the outside who needs this making up. Is there a way you could do it?’ You’d say ‘Go through the governor and security; if they say yes, we can make it up.’

“We even had the prison officers saying ‘Can you stitch our names on our uniforms?’ It’s nice when you get people in authority coming up to you, envious that you can do something.”

Writer and radio presenter Libby Purves, who lives near Leiston, is a patron of Fine Cell Work. She says: “Of all the aesthetic projects offered down the years to capture the imagination and tame the frustration of prisoners, fine needlework is one of the oddest. Yet it has worked, and borne fruit, and perhaps after all it is not surprising.

“Prisons even at their best are stark and utilitarian places. The chance to create a piece of ‘unnecessary’ beauty and send it out into the world is at once a defiance of that environment and a good use of the time spent there.”

Esther Freud has three children and is married to actor David Morrissey.

They have a house in the Southwold area, which has a long association with her family.

Her novels include Hideous Kinky and The Sea House (set on the Suffolk coast).

Her next book, due out in a year, is set in Walberswick.

It’s about Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

He and his wife spent a peaceful year in Walberswick in 1914, as a kind of extended holiday.

During it, he produced a series of watercolour paintings of flowers.

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