thread 2017: q&a with fine cell work

thread 2017: q&a with fine cell work

Fine Cell Work is a charity and social enterprise which enables prisoners to live fulfilling and crime-free lives, by training them to do high-quality, creative needlework in their cells and textiles training in prison workshops to foster hope, discipline and employability.  We asked Katie Steingold, Events & Communications Manager for the charity to tell us more about their history and achievements, ahead of their involvement at thread 2017…


Since officially starting operations in 1997, have changes in politics or prison systems had an effect on the organisation or opportunities that can be offered?

For Fine Cell Work, it is very important that we work with the prison system and not against it. We are offering our stitchers a chance to learn a new skill, earn and save money and carry out purposeful activity whilst they serve their sentences. We are not a political organisation, and work the best we can within the system as it is. There have been some changes which have impacted the way we work, but for the most part we have adapted to accommodate these.

What do you consider to be the main, long lasting benefits felt by prisoners who have been involved in                    Fine Cell IMG_4182Work?

Needlework can be incredibly therapeutic and it provides a creative escape from the monotony of prison life. 97% of our stitchers are men, and often they will take up Fine Cell Work as it is well-paid in prison terms, yet once they start to develop their skills they enjoy many more benefits in addition to the money that they earn. For many, this will be the first time that they have seen a project through from start to finish and been rewarded or praised for it. This can have a significant impact on a stitchers self-esteem and emotional wellbeing, that acknowledgement that they have achieved something. Once a cushion, quilt or item of giftware has been bought, we encourage customers to write to the stitcher to thank them for their work and provide that link between the piece that they have stitched and the finished product which is now sitting in someone’s home. We also send a newsletter into prison twice a year which keeps our stitchers updated on sales, events where their work has been showcased and sold (such as thread festival!), and upcoming projects to make them feel a part of the wider Fine Cell Work. This sense of connection and belonging is also hugely important to our stitchers.

How do you become a Fine Cell Work volunteer and what qualities do you think volunteers need to get involved?

We have the most fantastic pool of extremely talented and loyal volunteers who go into prison weekly, fortnightly or monthly to teach and support our stitchers. Many of them are members of embroiderers or quilters groups, and all are incredibly skilled and very patient – key for working in the prison environment!   However, it is not just in prison where we rely on volunteers. We are constantly on the lookout for new volunteers to support us with events, in our pop-up shops and with the daily running of our office. To get involved in that side of the charity, all you need is time, enthusiasm and an open mind, and we can provide the rest!

Is there any opportunity to support the work of Fine Cell Work in ways other than volunteering?Artichokes

One of our biggest challenges is “routes to market”… basically, finding opportunities to sell our beautiful products. We have an online shop, a pop-up shop, and sell through events but we are always looking for further opportunities. One of our most successful ways of selling products is when a lovely supporter opens their home to us, allowing us to fill their space with cushions and giftware and then inviting all of their friends along to find out more and, of course, buy! Think of a Tupperware party, but with beautiful, hand-stitched cushions. We would always welcome opportunities like this, so if any of your lovely readers or thread visitors think they would be interested in hosting an event for us, we’d love to hear from them!

Since Lady Anne’s initial project with two long term prisoners were sold as collectors’ items in New York in the 1960s, the work has been continued to be supported and exhibited by the V&A, commissioned by English Heritage as well as leading interior designers. Do you feel that art and craft overcome social boundaries in ways that haven’t existed before?

Textiles has always played a part in transcending boundaries. Throughout history it has been used by soldiers and surgeons to offer the same rehabilitative aspects we give our stitchers. In today’s society, people are naturally more open minded but the tool of craft allows them a common conversational point away from hierarchy, social boundaries or gender stereotypes. This is certainly true amongst our stitchers.

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With the huge success achieved by Fine Cell Work (with your network of over 80 volunteers training over 500 prisoners in 32 prisons across England and Wales), what encouragement would you offer to prison systems in other countries who are considering starting similar schemes? 
Every prison system is different and as such, so are the realms of what is possible. However, there are already lots of programmes running in prisons both in the UK and worldwide that are offering prisoners a second chance, and that is something we would always encourage.

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We are delighted to have a selection of Fine Cell Work handicraft on sale at thread. Are there any particular favourite items that the craftspeople enjoy working on the most?

It completely varies from stitcher to stitcher, based on their skill level and the discipline that they use – embroidery, needlepoint, quilting etc. We had one stitcher who loved making pin cushions as they were simple to make and he knew he could make them quickly so he could earn more from them. In the space of five months, he stitched over 100 (!) pin cushions, earning enough to pay for car insurance upon his release from prison. At the complete opposite end of the scale, our Clint Eastwood cushions are also very popular amongst our more highly skilled stitchers. They are a real labour of love due to being entirely stitched in greyscale, and the sense of achievement once completing these is very gratfiying.

Have you worked with any particular individuals or on projects which have been most memorable or changed aspects of Fine Cell Works’ process or involvement?

A recent example was our collaboration with Cornelia Parker on the Magna Carta project. To coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Cornelia Parker commissioned a large work depicting its Wikipedia page. Working on this project was particularly memorable  – not only because it was working with such an amazing artist – but also as the project was simple in concept, but complex in enormity and therefore logistically challenging to pull together in a tight time frame. It very much altered our involvement in that we were working very much collaboratively, not only with Cornelia herself but also the Royal School of Needlework and the Embroiderers Guild to produce the individual sections and bring the project to completion on time.

Other memorable and challenging work can be found with the artist Polly Borland, who has commissioned us for many years now to help her turn her controversial and highly sensitive photographs into needlepoints which she then exhibits across the world. Her work is multifaceted and often tackles sensitive issues regarding mental health and incarceration. This in turn means that we are very careful as to what we can stitch and have to work in a manner that is sensitive to the stitchers. Most recently, we turned her famous portrait of the Queen into 13 identical needlepoints. This was a particularly quirky and memorable moment – especially as we were still working just down the road from Buckingham Palace at the time.

A volunteer from Fine Cell Work will be presenting a talk The Rehabilitative Power of Stitch, as part of the talk programme ar thread. The talk, starting at 2pm in the Long Kiln Gallery and is free to attend with a thread day or workshop ticket. Spaces are on a first come first served basis. For more information click here. Also see Fine Cell Work products for sale at their exhibitor stand, located in the Tindle Studio. 

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