Fine Cell Work – Stitching in Prisons

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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. Here’s what they say about the enterprise.

The 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 their classes have waiting lists and the initiative has done a lot to transform attitudes towards needlecraft within the prison system.

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 their products.

Fine Cell Work Inmate Class

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.”

Fine Cell Work Stitching

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.

Some of the most powerful effects of Fine Cell Work can be understood by reading their testimonials. 

Fine Cell Work - Gillard

Fascinating Facts:

  • 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

Fine Cell Work Volunteers

Mr X Stitch is proud to support Fine Cell Work whose work highlights the profound benefits of needlecraft as a tool for healing and rehabilitation. Please take the time to visit their site and find out more about this terrific enterprise, and support them by buying their cushions and gifts here.