Tracey Chevalier (author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring) whose most recent novel ‘The Last Runaway’ features a quilter as its heroine has been visiting Wandsworth prison in recent months, joining a stitching workshop organised by prison charity and social enterprise Fine Cell Work.

Why? 

From 1 April to 31 October 2014, Danson House in Bexleyheath, Kent presents Things We Do in Bed, a new exhibition celebrating the historic and contemporary art of quilting which Tracey Chevalier has curated. 

We spend a third of our lives in bed, much of that time under covers such as quilts to keep us warm. Although some have metamorphosed over time from useful household objects to works of art, Things We Do in Bed celebrates quilts’ continuing links to what goes on behind the bedroom door. A lively mix of quilts and quilt works will be displayed through the five bedrooms in Danson House, with each room focusing on a different bed activity: Birth, Sleep, Sex, Illness, Death.

One of the quilts has been created by prisoners serving sentences in nine UK prisons. It is comprised of 60 panels, each one reflecting the imagination and individual expression of the prisoner who has designed and stitched it.  Entitled the ‘Sleep Quilt’ it is a moving testimony to the thoughts and emotions of these people who are serving sentences in the hard and testing environment of a penal institution where many spend as much as eighteen hours a day confined to a small cell. This project has enabled prisoners to use their own creativity to produce stitching works that cover a varied genre of themes surrounding their own sleeping experiences in prison.

As one of the stitchers explained, ‘A comfortable nights sleep is taken for granted on the outside and yet within prison this can rarely be the case.  Being locked in a cell from very early in the evening creates a lonely atmosphere whereby prisoners are unable to wind down and fully relax.’

Reflecting on her time with the prisoners at Wandsworth, Tracy Chevalier says, ‘It has been an eye-opening experience working with prisoners on the Sleep Quilt project. Not only have I learned how universal it is for everyone to crave a “good night’s sleep” – and how elusive that can be in prison. I have also been reminded that sewing and creating things are therapeutic both outside and inside prison.  Quilting with the prisoners was very much like quilting with my own sewing group: we teased, chatted, and sat in companionable silence, and for a moment it felt as if there were no walls holding us in or out.’

Things We Do in Bed will feature traditional historical quilts dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, alongside contemporary quilted work from artists including Grayson Perry, Sara Impey, Karina Thompson and Michele Walker and others.

Tracy Chevalier is an internationally bestselling author of seven novels. In her most recent book, The Last Runaway, her heroine is a quilter. As well as learning a lot about quilts, Tracy learned to quilt by hand. As she says: ‘Since researching quilts for my last novel, I have fallen hard for the varied and miraculous artistry of quilting. With this show I explore how quilting relates to bedroom activities, in both practical and abstract ways. For traditionalists, there are jaw-dropping examples of antique quilt-making. For contemporary art lovers, there are works that push boundaries and emotions.’

Bexley Heritage Trust manages Danson House, a beautifully restored Georgian villa where sumptuous interiors tell the story of a country house built for entertainment.

Opening times: Danson House is open Sunday to Thursday from 1 April – 31 October. Opening hours are 12pm – 5pm.

Admission: Adults £8, concessions £6, under 16s free (no unaccompanied children). Gift Aided tickets are valid for unlimited repeat visits within a 12 month period. English Heritage and National Trust members receive half price admission (not valid for groups). Admission is free with a National Art Pass.

Prisoners from the following prisons have worked on the Sleep quilt: Albany, Bullingdon, Brixton, Dovegate, Frankland, Littlehey, Send, Wandsworth, Whatton,

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. 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. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending. Fine Cell Work is done in 29 prisons with 300 prisoners and 97% of the stitchers are men. All of the classes have waiting lists. Fine Cell Work is a charitable initiative which is funded 40% by sales and 60% by donations and trusts.

Prisoners earn 37% of the proceeds from the sale of their work and the remainder is reinvested in training workshops, materials and Fine Cell Work’s development. 

The prisoners’ products have been sold to internationally and to top interior designers such as William Yeoward and Nina Campbell. Works have been commissioned by leading heritage organisations such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Trust and English Heritage.

www.finecellwork.co.uk