Handmade in Prison: Part One – The Teachers

by Weeks on 23/10/2006

in People, Quilting

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This post has been six months in the making and proves that you never know where life will take you. In this case it took me to a quilting class at Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth just outside of London. This experience changed forever how I see quiltmaking and all because I read a post on Whipup! This is the first of two posts on this experience and I hope these posts will encourage Whipup’s readers to think about about crime, punishment and craft in new ways.

How It All Started

Last Spring I read a post on Whipup about Fine Cell Work, the 10-year-old, London-based organization that teaches needlework in nearly 400 prisoners in 22 prisons in England and Scotland. Having written my master’s thesis on the role of gardens as therapeutic and job-training devices in a women’s prison and having been a professional quiltmaker for the past seven years, I was fascinated by their work. We had a business trip planned to London so I emailed them asking if I could be of some help to them during our trip. I thought perhaps that we could donate fabric, teach a class, somehow support them. We decided through a series of emails that Bill and I would meet with the teachers at Fine Cell Works’ offices and that I would attend the Tuesday night quilting class at the men’s prison while Bill stayed at our flat with our daughter.

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The Teachers
The best way of telling you about the character of these volunteer teachers and the Fine Cell Work staff would be to say that if I were on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, I would want these women in my lifeboat. They’re smart, capable, fun, compassionate and optimistic.

Each goes to a men’s prison once a week to teach prisoners how to make quilts entirely by hand. They also work with the Fine Cell Work staff to sell the needlepoint and applique pillows and quilts at various locations in England. The teachers have differing approaches to the process but they all believe that offering someone who is at the lowest point in their life a chance to make something beautiful is worth their time. They do not ask the prisoners the circumstances of their incarceration beyond “Will you be here a long time?” To them it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the prisoners find the work improves their self-esteem, helps them cope with their situation, calms them as they try to overcome addiction in some cases, and prepares some for the bleak future that awaits many of them when they are released. To a non-crafter this may sound absurd, but to those of us who have experienced the transformative power of making things, it is easy to understand. The teachers report that some prisoners save the money they receive from the sale of their quilts through Fine Cell Work for accomodations upon their release while others send proceeds to their families, who are the unintended victims of their crimes.

The teachers gather donated fabrics and designs for new quilters to learn the basics, while prisoners with more advanced skills sometimes work with the teachers to design their own quilts. Sometimes patrons of Fine Cell Work commission a specific design with specific fabrics which are then purchased for the project. Aside from the time with the teachers once a week, prisoners do the needlework in their cells in the evenings after they have finished their prison work. The teachers invest a tremendous amount of time and energy preparing for each prisoner’s needs and are sometimes frustrated that a prisoner is moved to another prison in the middle of a project.

I asked the teachers what motivated them to teach prisoners needlework. They answered that most of the prisoners seemed to have lacked encouragement in their childhoods. After being praised for improving his quilting technique, one prisoner told a teacher, “No one has ever told me that I did anything well before.” The teachers know that the prisoners have committed terrible crimes, but they also believe that people can change. The quilting class is voluntary so only prisoners interested in learning show up.

“Have you ever felt threatened?” I asked the teachers. One teacher said that she feels anxious walking from the entry of the prison to the classroom, but that she never feels any anxiety around the prisoners she is teaching because she knows them so well. Another told a story of being in the prison one evening and hearing a tremendous amount of banging. She could tell that periodically there were a lot of prisoners banging on their cell bars. She thought a riot was about to take place and asked the guard what was going on. The guard explained that there was a World Cup football match being broadcast and that the prisoners were banging on the bars when their team scored a goal. The teachers and staff all laughed at this story but were aware that it could have ended differently.

I’ve added these women to my list of personal heroes. Bill and I gave them each some of our books and fabric, but that doesn’t seem like nearly enough. We’re going to keep in touch, maybe offer to donate some designs if they’re interested. I just know this isn’t the last we’ve seen of each other.

Next post: Part Two – Quilting Class in the Prison

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