A stitch in time: the benefits of teaching prisoners to sew

Learning a craft can change lives – and a scheme showing inmates how to use a needle and thread has had some remarkable results

It’s a balmy afternoon in southwest London and there’s a deafening sound overhead. My companion, Sebastian, jumps excitedly to his feet and leaps outside into the sun-dappled courtyard. Cupping one hand over his eyes, he points the other towards a luxury Pullman train clattering past us at great speed, before breaking into an enormous smile. “The first time I came to this workshop, I heard the big wheels and the ground shook!” he says, his voice quivering, and with good reason. Only a few years ago, Sebastian (not his real name) was locked down for 23 and a half hours every day in his prison cell, with meals brought to his door, and no sense of movement at all.

“Fine Cell Work was a godsend during that time,” Sebastian tells me – as he recalls the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak. “They went above and beyond to get work to people. We really felt that somebody was looking out for us.” When Fine Cell Work (FCW) was created in 1997 by Lady Anne Tree, her idea of patronage through embroidery seemed quaint to some, perhaps even lightweight in its ethos. What could needlework possibly offer prisoners in their darkest hour? And how could stitching and sewing clear a path towards recovery and rehabilitation upon their release? Over the past 25 years, this charity has shown just how powerful a French knot can be. Since its first needlework groups were set up in HMPs Cookham Wood, Maidstone and Wandsworth, FCW has taught intricate needlework to more than 8,000 prisoners, sending volunteers into 32 prisons across the UK, with an aim to enable their apprentices to lead independent, crime-free lives.

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