Interview
Stitching an Enterprise

Fine Cell Work

Meet the craft initiative providing a route to rehabilitation for Britain’s prison communities

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What happens when a small-scale initiative becomes a valuable route to rehabilitation? Fine Cell Work has achieved just that, working with the UK’s prison system to train inmates in highly skilled needlepoint techniques, while offering monetary payment for the designs they produce. Here, the team behind the enterprise talk about its unique aim, stitching a new path for prison communities across the country.

How did Fine Cell Work come into fruition? Fine Cell Work was founded in 1997 by Lady Anne Tree. As a visitor to HMP Holloway women's prison in the 1960s, Lady Anne worked with two long-term prisoners on intricate needlepoint carpets, which were subsequently sold as collectors' items in New York. Lady Anne felt that the women who had put so much hard work into the pieces should be able to earn money from their work, and so she became determined to establish an organisation in which prisoners could learn a skill to the highest level and be paid for their efforts. After decades of lobbying the Home Office to change the law so that prisoners could earn money from their work she achieved her goal. Working out of a bedsit in Bloomsbury, Fine Cell Work officially started operations in 1997.

Why needlework in particular? Lady Anne Tree cited two reasons for focusing on needlepoint. Her mother-in-law, Nancy Lancaster, owned the interior designers Colefax and Fowler, so "I had the possibility to sell good-quality needlework for good prices through shops." She was also convinced that sewing was therapeutic: "It is meditative, a way of thinking, of taking stock."

Fine Cell Work - crafting hands
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What is the main objective of the scheme? The main objective is to encourage our stitchers to lead fulfilling, crime-free lives. We do this by training them to do high-quality, creative needlework in their cells and textiles training in prison workshops to foster hope, discipline and employability. Our aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend. Stitching provides them with a purpose, and a chance to take pride in something that they have achieved. For many, these attributes are more important to them than the money they earn, although of course that is a welcome bonus.

How many prisoners are currently involved in the scheme? We work with 250 prisoners at any one time, and just over 500 throughout the course of a year.

And how many volunteers? 292 volunteers involved in the organisation carrying out the following roles: teaching in prisons, mentoring ex-prisoners, helping the production team with designs and putting together kits, assisting with prisoner correspondence, manning pop-up shops, helping at sales and events, serving on events committees and sitting on the board of trustees.

How do you go about managing the volunteering programme? This depends on the volunteer activity. Jenni Parker, our Head of Volunteers and Programmes is responsible for ensuring that volunteers are supported, trained and understand their roles. We train volunteers who work with prisoners and ex-prisoners and ensure that any volunteer in an emotionally sensitive role receives the support they need. As our volunteers are situated across the whole country, Jenni spends much of her time travelling to volunteer run groups in prisons and helping out as much as possible. Volunteers serving on events committees are supported by the events team and sales volunteers are supported by the sales team. We believe that offering interesting and exciting volunteer opportunities is key to ensuring that volunteers feel happy in their role, alongside regularly communicating with volunteers the impact of their roles and the work of the whole organisation. In addition, we build strong relationships with prison staff to ensure volunteers always have someone in the prison that they can talk to if they have any concerns at all.

Fine Cell Work - Red Bag
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Do volunteers undergo any training? Volunteers teaching prisoners receive not only a whole day of training in house at Fine Cell Work but they also receive two days of training from the prison they will be volunteering in. All other volunteers are given tailored training to ensure they understand the aims and objectives of their role and can carry out their roles to the highest ability. This includes cutting fabric, putting together kits for prisoners, responding to requests from prisoners and designing products.

Where do you source your craft materials? We work with a range of suppliers but all our threads are from DMC or Appletons. We also get lots of donations of fabrics and wools, which are brilliant for our beginners.

How many hours a week do the prisoners stitch for? Some of our most advanced stitchers can stitch for up to 30 hours a week.

Are they given a design brief? We provide instructions with our kits for the stitchers to follow. However, when working on commission projects, a brief is set by the designer. We find a lot of our stitchers develop a genuine passion for stitching and often create entirely unique pieces of work for themselves.

Where do you draw inspiration for the designs? We draw inspiration from a range of areas – old needlework or pattern designs, botanical illustrations, iconic buildings, hats and fashion images – many places! We have a great archive of books here and have been lucky enough to work with some really amazing designers of course too (Kit Kemp, Ben Pentreath, Cath Kidston, and many others to name a few) who draw inspiration from their own places and work with us to ensure the quality of our designs are as high as possible.

Fine Cell Work - In-mate stitching
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Are they encouraged to continue work outside prison? Stitchers in prison are encouraged to continue working with us in the community. Open the Gate is a training initiative whereby apprentices can further develop their textile skills with the aim of securing gainful employment in the industry.  We will also support apprentices with signposting to other employment opportunities not within the textile industry.

If so, do they have mentors to support them through this transition? Yes, when apprentices sign up to our Open the Gate programme they are matched to a mentor, who ideally will have some experience of working in the textile industry with skills that are a good fit with our ex-prisoners.  We are looking at a once-fortnightly commitment, however this can be flexible.

Can you share any stories from prisoners who have benefited from the scheme? Last year we were visiting a FCW Group at a high security prison. The group is run on the mental health wing and the volunteers work with individuals struggling with a variety of mental health needs. A new prisoner had joined the group and several weeks into his stitching was progressing well. Whilst there, a psychologist knocked on the door and said, “I wanted to see what magic you are working in here”. Confused, the volunteers looked at the psychologist and asked her to explain. “I have been working with this man for months. He has self-harmed his whole life and felt suicidal since I have been working with him. Since stitching with you he has completely stopped self-harming and is much happier! What magic are you working on him!?”. This proves the power of stitching – not only are our prisoners making beautiful products they are improving their confidence and wellbeing. One prisoner we were working with was struggling to engage with his family when he was in prison and found visiting sessions so depressing he was considering telling them not to visit him anymore, and then he started stitching! His mother had always been a quilter and so for the first time in his life he had something in common with her and was able to take his stitching along to visiting sessions and show her the work he was doing and ask for her advice. It was the first time since being in prison that he had something positive to share with her.

Fine Cell Work - Bunny Cushion
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How do you monitor the quality of the pieces? Our kits are carefully designed to enable stitchers to practice their skills, progressing through from beginner to advanced. New stitchers are also encouraged to undertake our accredited training.Our volunteers are incredibly skilled and many have formal embroidery training, they ensure the work is correct and done to the highest standard before returning it to our office, where it is checked again by a member of the production team.

You work on a lot of special commissions. Are there any that stand out as particularly exciting for the scheme? In 2015 we worked with the artist Cornelia Parker on ‘Magna Carta- an embroidery’ – a 13 metre-long embroidered version of the Wikipedia entry on ‘Magna Carta’ as part of the celebration of 800 years of Magna Carta and displayed at the British Library. Stitched by over 200 people, much of the work was done by Fine Cell Work prisoners alongside lawyers and civil rights campaigners, barons and MPs.
We produced The Wandsworth Quilt at HMP Wandsworth, which was hung at the V&A as part of the major exhibition ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ and seen by thousands of visitors to the exhibition. Designed in the octagonal shape of an aerial view of Wandsworth, the quilt was designed by prisoners and showed different elements of prison life.
We are currently working on a commission for a private client for 14 needlepoint chair seats and backs – produced in the style of eighteenth century Bizarre-style patterns and each one depicting an individual image from one of the client’s favourite books.

Fine Cell Work - Hands stitching
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