FDresden Plate Quilt (double)
Dresden Plate Quilt (double)

The Fine Cell Work charity was the idea of Lady Anne Tree who as a prison visitor was struck by the amount of time the inmates spent doing nothing. She determined to set up a charity to teach them a marketable skill that they could do in their cells and would be of use when they came out. She settled on quilting and embroidery because it could be worked almost anywhere and 10 years ago set up Fine Cell Work. Volunteers from the Embroiderers Guild, the Royal School of Needlework and the world of professional design helped to start teaching prisoners the art of patchwork, quilting, and embroidery.

Working Class

They are taught in groups and gradually find whether they are best at design, quilting, patchwork or embroidery. Once trained to a high standard, they concentrate on preparation in the classes and spend many hours working in their cells. A class begins with the inmates arriving with their folders containing basic equipment and their current work. As with any craft class the teacher then discusses the projects with the individuals and records what they have done. The men are encouraged to make templates and put forward ideas for colours and construction. Some work on a joint project as they like the working companionship but most prefer to complete a project on their own. The inmates come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are inside for various crimes but the one thing they have in common is finding the work therapeutic.

Hearts Cot Quilt
Hearts Cot Quilt

A road to success

Jeffry Marcus learned patchwork and quilting in Wandsworth and discovered his flair for design. His first quilt measured 7 x 10 feet, which he managed to work in his 6 x 9 feet cell!

Entirely hand sewn it won a prize in the Quilters Guild Exhibition at Lords Cricket Ground in 1999. His second original quilt called Jenesis contains 3600 pieces and took 1500 hours to make both in Wandsworth and when he came out. The enormous ‘J’ in the centre stands for Jeffry, Jail and Jenesis. A fireburst behind it represents the Big Bang when the earth was created. It’s about rebirth and self-belief. It attracted a lot of attention in the National Festival of Quilts in Birmingham in 2003. Artist Simon Moretti was so impressed that he commissioned an avant-garde quilt from him and has asked Jeffry to collaborate on a quilt design with him. Since his release Jeffry has continued with his quilting but also harnessed his eye for colour to set up his own garden design business.

Hope and Glory

The work is nearly all commissioned by interior designers and graces many a noble home. The fabrics used are top quality giving a certain richness to the finished pieces. Any piece not up to standard has to be unpicked and done again.

Fine Cell work now has 220 skilled workers in 25 prisons and produces a catalogue of designs that customers can choose from. The prisoner is given a pack with all the fabric and threads necessary to complete the work. With no expensive or dangerous tools, it’s an ideal way of passing the time for those locked up for as many as 23 hours a day. One describes sitting up late at night sewing and not realising where the time has gone. It gives them an income meaning they are no longer dependent on their families for money. The proceeds from sales are split between the charity, the cost of materials and the prisoners. Some complain about their share but are gently reminded that all teachers and the charity staff are volunteers.

Nigel Sloane who learnt quilting in Wandsworth earned enough to set himself up in business when he came out. "I find the marking, cutting, piecing and quilting very therapeutic. Apart from the pleasure of the work there’s the feedback from satisfied customers."

Wandsworth Heart Wreath (double)
Wandsworth Heart Wreath (double)

Exhibitions and Sales

There’s no difficulty in selling the work. Volunteers offer their homes to Fine Cell Work as venues for 2 or 3 day sales throughout the year but the main outlet is an annual exhibition at Chelsea Town Hall. Confirmation that their work goes into the very best houses was evident when the Duchess of Cornwall bought some cushions during the November 2005 sale. And it was announced that an inmate at Albany prison recently made a wedding present for the Prince of Wales.

Further sales are made via the Fine Cell Work website that offers quilts, cushions and small items. Cot quilts are a popular choice. An attractive Heart Cot Quilt with hearts appliquéd on squares is priced £159. At the top of the range is a Wandsworth Heart Wreath quilt in delicate colours with a ring of leaves surrounding four small hearts at £570. A Dresden Plate Quilt at £550 features multicoloured circles with segmented borders and mid range is a Stripy Quilt at £350 with a blue background and predominately blue and yellow stripes. All of them destined to become family heirlooms.

Recently commissioned larger quilts feature the traditional log cabin design in shades of rust and cream, bedspreads made of blue and white ticking to fit bunk beds on a boat, and a Christening quilt for a baby called Emily. Each quilt has the worker’s name sewn into the corner together with the date it was finished and the prison where it was made.

Inmates own design – sold at auction
Inmates own design – sold at auction

A Positive Outlook

Those who take part in the scheme are positive. It gives them something to occupy the time and enables them to be independent for money. Knowing their work is good enough to go in some of the best homes in the country gives them a sense of pride too. Many progress to teaching others which measures the scheme’s success. One long-term prisoner who trained in Maidstone is responsible for running the newly set up scheme in a prison on the Isle of Wight, giving him a purpose in life. Hopefully this success story will be repeated elsewhere and help to reduced the long waiting list of other prisons wanting to join Fine Cell Work.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 14 Number 4 - April 2006