A Stitch Doing Time

Beautiful, intricate needlework isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of prison life, but inmates across the U.K. are learning to sew, quilt and hand-embroider, thanks to the efforts of skilled volunteers with Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise created in 1997. The prisoners are paid for their creations, which include embroidered cushions, quilts, tote bags, wall hangings and furniture covers. Prisoners’ pieces grace Kensington Palace, the mayor of London’s residence and Dover Castle, among others. Fine Cell Work is meant to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem, giving inmates a purposeful activity to pass the time spent in their cells.

For many prisoners, the rewards are immeasurable. A former inmate named Martin told the Eastern Daily Press of Norwich that Fine Cell Work may have saved his life. He had been serving an 18-month sentence in Cambridgeshire when he joined the sewing group, knowing little more than how to reattach a button. Soon, he was teaching other inmates how to sew. “It gave me such a lift to be told something I had done was fantastic,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Fine Cell Work, I would have gone into a depressive state.”

Martin was released from prison with enough money to buy some new clothes and the skills to start a new career. He is currently employed making curtains and blinds for hotels, plus takes on commission needlework.