Fine Cell Work
Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework — undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells — to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.
Our stitchers spend an average of 20 hours per week doing embroidery in their cells: the highest earners stitch for as long as 40 hours. It’s a way of life that enables them to serve their time with dignity and purpose and the earnings give them hope, skills and independence. Fine Cell Work is done in 20 prisons with 300 prisoners and 97% of the stitchers are men. All of our classes have waiting lists.
Prisoners are taught by skilled volunteers and this important relationship can motivate them to achieve things they never thought possible. There is a lack of purposeful activity in prison, where convicted prisoners, 70% of whom have one or more mental health disorder, spend an average of 17 hours a day locked in their cells. Prisoners earn approximately 37% of the sale price and there is around 100 hours work in each of our products.
Fine Cell Work is alone in finding a way for prisoners to occupy their “cell-time” in activity which is not only creative but also generates a steady income. 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 and is entirely voluntary, with prisoners’ success depending on the time they choose to put in.
FCW is commited to working with prisoners through their entire sentences and offers the chance to belong to a larger and more meaningful entity. Needlework requires focus, rhythm and accuracy. It is the antithesis of the roughness, the carelessness and the loss of control which characterise offending behaviour. Indeed, prisoners’ most common description of doing needlework in their cells is “a therapy.”
The idea for Fine Cell Work was conceived by Lady Anne Tree in the 1960’s when she was a prison visitor to HMP Holloway. She became aware of how much of prisoners’ time was completely wasted and that they might do a skilled job in their cell, get paid for it and have the money presented to them on release. Her idea that if the work was top quality there would be a market for it. She thought embroidery would be a useful skill as it was easily transported in a kit bag when the workers moved prison.
Lady Anne’s mother-in-law owned Colefax & Fowler while Lady Anne herself was on the committee of the Royal School of Needlework. She managed to broker a beautiful and prestigious commission for two needlepoint carpets which were worked through the offices of the Royal School of Needlework and sold by Colefax & Fowler. The prisoners who produced the work however were not allowed to be paid for their work After many years of trying, it was 1995 that the Home Office agreed the prisoners might be able to earn a wage for their work and the Charity was registered. In 1997 it begun to operate as it does today.
In the past year we have done commissions for English Heritage, the Jerwood Foundation and the Duchess of Cornwall and Prince of Wales. In 2010 the ‘Wandsworth Quilt’, produced in HMP Wandsworth was exhibited in the hugely successful British Quilts exhibition at the V&A. This year alone Fine Cell Work has done commissions for embroidered clothes, shoes, bedspreads, furniture covers, banners, rugs and quilts, as well as for the cushions we are now known for.
“I am learning a new skill which I did not think possible. I also know that people do care about me and what I do because otherwise why would people take an interest in my fine cell work! I now believe what others think about me makes a real difference to how I conduct myself.”
Steve, HMP Wandsworth
“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.”
Libby Purves (Patron)
“It was a pleasure to provide these designs for such an inspiring charity – their work does change prisoners’ lives. I am delighted with the results and hope this is the start of further collaborations.”
“It’s amazing to see how many productive hours are generated by Fine Cell stitchers and reiterates how important your work is.”
Prison Education Officer, HMP Frankland
There is an average of 90 hours work in any one of our cushions
Prisoners do hand-embroidery in their cells for between 20 and 40 hours a week
They do the work on their beds
It takes on average 5 months to complete a cushion
It takes between one and two years to hand-sew a kingsize bed quilt
More than 5,000 prisoners have attended workshops since FCW was founded
97% of stitchers are men
An average cushion contains 40,000 stitches
Designers who have created products for FCW include John Stefanidis, Nicky Haslam, William Yeoward and Allegra Hicks
FCW gets prisoners to teach and run FCW classes
FCW makes 2,000 hand-embroidered cushions every year
FCW works with 300 prisoners
FCW has more than 200 prisoners on its waiting lists
FCW has received a Queens Award for Voluntary Service
FCW has been a “Times” charity of the year
Prisoners’ families take up needlepoint because of FCW
Prisoners say that doing embroidery is “like a meditation” – “it calms you down”
Former prisoners have themselves become volunteer teachers of needlework
There are prisoners’ products in the Mayor of London’s residence, Mansion House
It is part of FCW’s rehabilitation effort to ask customers to write to thank the man or woman who stitched their purchase