It’s a balmy afternoon in southwest London and there’s a deafening sound overhead. My companion, Sebastian, jumps excitedly to his feet and leaps outside into the sun-dappled courtyard. Cupping one hand over his eyes, he points the other towards a luxury Pullman train clattering past us at great speed, before breaking into an enormous smile. “The first time I came to this workshop, I heard the big wheels and the ground shook!” he says, his voice quivering, and with good reason. Only a few years ago, Sebastian (not his real name) was locked down for 23 and a half hours every day in his prison cell, with meals brought to his door, and no sense of movement at all.
“Fine Cell Work was a godsend during that time,” Sebastian tells me – as he recalls the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak. “They went above and beyond to get work to people. We really felt that somebody was looking out for us.” When Fine Cell Work (FCW) was created in 1997 by Lady Anne Tree, her idea of patronage through embroidery seemed quaint to some, perhaps even lightweight in its ethos. What could needlework possibly offer prisoners in their darkest hour? And how could stitching and sewing clear a path towards recovery and rehabilitation upon their release? Over the past 25 years, this charity has shown just how powerful a French knot can be. Since its first needlework groups were set up in HMPs Cookham Wood, Maidstone and Wandsworth, FCW has taught intricate needlework to more than 8,000 prisoners, sending volunteers into 32 prisons across the UK, with an aim to enable their apprentices to lead independent, crime-free lives.
It’s very strange in prison. Everyone thinks it’s going to be terrible and scary but, in fact, it’s mostly very boring
“The first thing I ever made was a Christmas decoration turkey, they’re delightful things,” Sebastian says. He first encountered FCW advertised on a poster at the long-term prison in which he had been moved to (one of three establishments Sebastian was assigned to before his release last year) and his interest was immediately piqued. Other occupational activities included kitchen work and recycling, neither of which seemed as exciting as threading bright wool through a slender eye and making something beautiful.
“It’s very strange in prison,” Sebastian says, as he sips tea at FCW’s London community hub – a safe space, beneath railway arches, that provides work experience and employment training to ex-prisoners, with the aim of getting them back into work. “Everyone thinks it’s going to be terrible and scary but, in fact, it’s mostly very boring. Nobody tells you how dull prison is going to be. Having that kind of structure, having something to do with my hands, something to work on, something to take pride in – it really changed everything.”
When talking about FCW, the word “pride” often comes up. “Essentially what we’re doing is providing purposeful activity for which prisoners are paid in order to build their self-respect,” says Victoria Gillies, FCW’s executive director, while discussing the relationship between sewing and self-worth. At one point, Gillies refers to “the transformational power of stitch”, a reshaping that can be observed on Sebastian’s face whenever he talks about the sewing he loves.
“I’m most proud of the penguins,” he says. Commissioned by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in 2016, for their remote gift shop at Port Lockroy in Antarctica, Sebastian and his fellow stitchers worked tirelessly for six weeks in order to fulfil the 500-piece order. Although they were tricky to make, nothing could have prepared him for the sense of accomplishment once they were finished. “The idea of a thing that you’ve made crossing the world gives you such pride,” he says.
The symbiosis between what can be imagined and what can be made lies at the heart of FCW’s radical initiative. It also goes some way to explaining the profound impact it can have on a prisoner’s sense of wellbeing and mood. You can escape into your stitching, Sebastian muses, because it transports you somewhere else. “It gives you focus, it keeps you occupied, it stops you dwelling on things.”
When Covid-19 hit in 2020, additional restrictions inside prisons intensified feelings of disconnection and isolation at a time when even scientists and doctors were grappling to understand the virus and how it spread. It took time for prisons to adapt to the new global reality. As a consequence, prisoners were kept in their cells for at least 23 hours every day without access to any of the meaningful activities that had previously given them so much purpose and hope. “It was a scary place to be locked down, it was very isolating. After a while they worked out ways of letting half a landing out for half an hour but you still had to walk 2m apart.”
Anticipating what might happen, FCW sent more than 2,000 products to prisons over a two-week period before the first lockdown was implemented. About 800 kits were made up, enabling stitchers to work in their cells. Over the previous two years, Sebastian had spent five days a week in the prison workshop. Friendships were formed. Intricate products were made. Since its inception, FCW’s output has ranged in size and scope, from high-profile artistic collaborations with the likes of Cornelia Parker and Ai Weiwei, to specialist museum commissions (in 2010, the HMP Wandsworth Quilt was exhibited at a major V&A exhibition), and bespoke ecclesiastical creations, such as St Mary’s Welwyn’s vibrant altar frontal. These legacy projects, Gillies says, are their most valuable pieces because they remind every stitcher that they’re a part of something bigger. And then there are the cushions, table linens and quilts. These handicrafts are available for purchase via the charity’s online shop, enabling FCW to pay every prisoner a small wage for their work – something Lady Anne Tree campaigned and lobbied for in the late-1980s.
As the moment, 92% of stitchers are men – partly due to the fact FCW has operated mainly in male prisons. But the charity plans to address this in the future.
Historically speaking, embroidery has often been dismissed and marginalised as “women’s work”. “I’m not entirely sure that’s true,” Sebastian says, thoughtfully. “There have always been men sewing, from fishermen making their smocks and their nets. Occasionally, there would be somebody in prison who came to sew in the workshop who took the mickey a bit. But they never lasted very long. They realised fairly quickly that it was actually really hard work!”
Strolling past Sebastian’s post-prison workshop – teeming with container boxes crammed full of multicoloured threads and zippers – conversation turns to reintegration, a complex word with any number of possible outcomes. “Being here, you don’t have to worry about the fact that you’re an ‘ex con’,” he says, gesturing quote marks, “because everyone is in the same boat.” Apprentices come in groups of around five to continue the work they started in their cells. There’s a craft club, too, and a “making up” service where anyone can send in their needlework, and for a £55 fee they will see it transformed into a cushion.
Since its launch in 2017, FCW’s Open the Gate programme has worked with 70 former prisoners and the reoffending rate among trainees has been just 2% compared with the national average of 46%. You see the change in people, Gillies says. “When they come out of prison there’s often an air of defeat, they’re overburdened by life. The advantage of a place like this is that they feel safe and that allows them to start building confidence.”
Sewing is more than a hobby for people like Sebastian, providing a social space and a sense of support.
“Sometimes stitching can be frustrating,” he says. “When you’ve done a whole block of needlepoint and you realise you’ve done it in the wrong colour. I did a really lovely cross stitch for my mother’s 70th birthday, and she absolutely loves it, but I know that there’s one point where the stitches are the wrong way round. I can spot it every time!” But the errors often become part of the piece. They make it unique. Maybe sewing is equally about letting go of all the things you can’t control, no matter how focused you are on getting it right. “Absolutely,” Sebastian agrees. “There’s pretty much a mistake in just about everything.”
For more details, go to finecellwork.co.uk. Some names have been changed