In a high security wing at Wandsworth, prisoners are sewing a quilt that will be shown at the V&A. Maggie Fergusson visits them ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
When Colin Eliot, four years into a 15-year sentence, stuck a bird’s-eye diagram of HMP Wandsworth, London, to the wall of his cell on the high-security wing, the screws were straight on to him. Escapes do happen: it was from Wandsworth, in 1965, that Ronnie Biggs gave the authorities the slip, scaling a 30ft wall during afternoon exercise. And Colin, who was a successful architect on the outside, is crafty. As the diagram was confiscated, he protested—with the cheeky-chappy, butter-wouldn’t-quite-melt expression that makes him rather unnerving company—that he was simply working on a design for a patchwork quilt. In vain.
In fact, this was nothing but the truth. The quilt he was dreaming up was no idle fantasy to while away the hours (18 out of 24) that he spends banged up in his 12ft x 6ft shared cell, but a commission from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the charity Fine Cell Work.
The quilt is now nearing completion. At 2 o’clock on a warm July afternoon, when the cells on K Wing are unlocked, eight men—aged 25 to 70—go straight to a small, bright, Victorian classroom, spread the quilt on a table, thread their needles and start stitching.
The corridor outside is dim and bleak. Low cell doors stretch away to left and right, reaching up three storeys, with nets suspended between floors; put there to catch prisoners who might try to jump to their deaths, they’ve caught a few crisp packets and tissues instead. There is a smell of disinfectant, the jangle of keys and the occasional clash of heavy doors. Prisoners in coarse, green trousers drift about, pale and panda-eyed from too little fresh air and too much sleep. They look like a shoal of ghosts.
Statistics that can become blunted through overuse are suddenly sobering: 72% of these men suffer from mental disorders, and 30% from learning difficulties; 47% ran away from home as children; 32% were homeless when convicted. Of those who are released, 47% will be convicted again within a year. Prison etiquette dictates that you do not ask the men about their crimes. Not knowing exactly how much suffering they had inflicted, I didn’t feel afraid of them; I was just oppressed by what one inmate describes as “the hopelessness of it all”.
The classroom, by contrast, is busy and buoyant. Three jolly middle-aged women, Hilda, Caroline and Linda, oversee the work. They have been guiding the men through this project for nearly two years now, and their presence lends a feeling of cosiness in short supply in an all-male prison. Caroline has spent her life with people who “think of themselves as failures”. Her father ran the care home in which Andrew Adonis (now Lord Adonis, Britain’s transport secretary) was placed at the age of three. She is a retired teacher who devoted her career to inner-city children with special needs. “So these men”, she says, “are just a bit further along life’s road. I’m sympathetic to them, and I think they appreciate that.”
The loafing futility which dominates so much of K Wing gives way in here to a feeling of purpose, even urgency. The quilt is running late. It must be finished by the end of November to take its place in an exhibition at the V&A in March. It will be one of 70 quilts, old and contemporary, including one by Tracey Emin. And it will hang alongside the Rajah Quilt, stitched by British convicts as they sailed from Woolwich to Tasmania in 1841, which is coming to Britain for the first time
Eccentric as it seems, encouraging criminals to take up fine needlework is not new. In the 19th century, Elizabeth Fry exerted there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God pressure on well-to-do women to give sewing materials to their sisters in Newgate Prison. Her spirit lives on in the charity Fine Cell Work, under whose auspices the V&A project is being carried out.
Founded in 1995 by Lady Anne Tree, a long-term prison visitor, Fine Cell Work operates today from offices in Victoria, deploying 50 volunteer needlework instructors and working in 26 prisons. The director, Katy Emck, has a room she calls “the larder”, stacked with Tailor of Gloucester silks, tapestry hoops, fabric pens, needles (prisoners are not allowed scissors in their cells—“but”, says Katy, “they do amazing things with their teeth”). Next door, canvases are ranged on labelled shelves—“To Be Stitched”, “To Be Stretched”, “To Be Sent”. And a further room is piled high with cushions, rugs and quilts. Some will be sold on through interior designers such as John Stefanidis and Melissa Wyndham.
Others are commissions: from the shop at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’s country house; from English Heritage (48 cushions for Dover Castle); from individuals who want their dogs, initials or coats of arms worked onto slippers or bags. Fine Cell Work insists that prisoners be paid for their work, and the keenest stitchers earn up to £500 a year—“which, in prison,” says Emck, “is riches.”
Peter, who has been stitching for Fine Cell Work in Wandsworth for two years, is one of these high earners. He has a cell to himself because he is considered at high risk of suicide. “If I want to cry, I cry,” he says. “For the first few weeks here I wouldn’t come out from behind the door. I was crying all the time. I’d read what the papers say about prison, and I was scared of the other men.” Now, propped up on his bed, he stitches for about 40 hours a week. He spends a little of his income in the prison shop, treating himself to “luxury items, like Aquafresh toothpaste”. The rest he saves against his eventual release. The “discharge grant” for prisoners is just £46.75, and for somebody like Peter, whose family have broken contact with him, the prospect of coming out is “terrifying”.
But the incentive for prisoners to stitch for Fine Cell Work is not chiefly financial. Pinned up by Emck’s desk is a letter sent to her by a lifer in HMP Maidstone. He begins by explaining how, “due to depression”, he spent the early months of his sentence “unwashed, unshaven, teeth not cleaned, hair not combed…dirty and stinking”. His days folded into weeks with nothing achieved and nothing to hope for.
“Then something happened to me. I was lying in my cell one evening when a bloke came in and asked if I can help him. I didn’t know the fella, but he had helped me with cigarette papers and teabags. He explained how he’d broken his glasses and needed to finish a pattern he was sewing for the in-cell charity course. Although I class myself as being very butch and sewing so very feminine, I figured I owed him, so I agreed to help him finish his work. He showed me what it was I had to do, I made him promise not to tell anybody and I hid it in a cupboard in my cell. About nine o’clock I got it out and started sewing. Before I knew where I was they started unlocking us for breakfast, a whole night had come and gone with no thoughts of suicide, no tears of melancholy.”
The men at Wandsworth echo these sentiments. Ryan, 21, moved to Wandsworth a year ago from Feltham Young Offender Institution. “I remember, when I was small, doing sewing-cards at playgroup,” he says, “but I’ve never held a needle since then. I thought it was women’s work. But then my cell-mate was doing it, so I put myself on the waiting-list. I’m pleased I did. It makes the time pass quicker.”
“Once you get into the sewing, you can think about other things,” says Colin. “On a bad day, I start thinking about my crime and my guilt. I think about my victim, and I feel locked in what I’ve done. I can’t get closure. But on a good day, I imagine I’m on holiday, sun on my face, fresh air.” Karl, like a quarter of the prison population of this country, has to share a cell originally designed for one, so needlework is a means of establishing distance from his cell-mate: “Once you’ve been sewing for a bit, you can forget him. In your head, he’s not there.”
But when the idea of a quilt designed by the prisoners of K Wing was first mooted, it was pooh-poohed. Even Katy Emck was doubtful. The idea came from Sue Prichard, curator of contemporary textiles at the V&A. She was told that the men were serving such long sentences and were so institutionalised that they would be incapable of taking this sort of initiative. And because of “churn”—the movement of long-term prisoners from one institution to another so that remand prisoners can be kept close to the courts at which they will be tried—she would be unable to establish a workable team (and indeed, of the 60 prisoners to have worked on the quilt, only one, Colin, has seen it through from start to finish).
But Prichard was determined. Week after week, she travelled from the V&A to Wandsworth, passed through the toy-fortress prison security gates (“Any sharps, Miss?”), under the snaking coils of barbed wire, and between the high, grim buildings that might have been the slum set for Carol Reed’s “Oliver”, to the high-security wing. She carried with her armfuls of some of the most beautiful work from the V&A textile collection to help inspire the inmates. She gave PowerPoint presentations about the art of patchwork. When some of the men said that they could not imagine what the V&A was like, she went back and took photographs of the museum and its galleries to create a kind of virtual tour. There was no response. “These men are so used to being governed by a regime”, says Hilda, “that it was almost impossible for them to start thinking for themselves.”
Then, at the eleventh hour, Colin the architect came up with the notion of a quilt based on the pan-opticon layout of HMP Wandsworth itself, with hexagonal panels designed by individual prisoners. Ideas began to trickle, then flow. One after another, prisoners asked for pieces of calico and embroidery silks to take back to their cells. “Suddenly,” says Caroline, “embroidered hexagons started flying in from all directions”—so many that the prisoners themselves formed a selection committee to choose which would pass muster for the final quilt. They wanted not just the best pieces of sewing, but the ones that most accurately reflected their lives. “They are actually very protective of their environment,” says Sue. “So when one prisoner embroidered a guy kneeling with his hands tied behind his back, they said, ‘No—Wandsworth’s not Guantánamo Bay’, and discarded it.”
The panels the men are stitching into place this afternoon include a caged bird, an intricately worked finger-print surrounded by DNA, a crush of bodies, and a pair of Nike trainers (shoes are one item of clothing the men can choose, and Nike is much prized). Some have no images, only words: “I will go home”, “I didn’t do it Guv!! Honest!”. The men chat and banter as they work. Seeing them settled round their classroom table, the sun slanting through the small high window, you can easily forget that these are dangerous criminals. They could be a bunch of leavers from a London school, doing a project to wind down after exams.
As they stitch, I ask them a few questions. Does prison work? Mixed reactions. “Once you’re put in prison, no matter what you say, nobody listens any more,” says John, “so it’s just made me more bitter.” But Peter admits that he’s “built up a lot of respect for the staff. I’ll miss them.” What is the hardest thing about being here? Sylvester points to one of the embroidered panels of the quilt: “I miss my family”. And what would they like the quilt to say to people at the V&A? Silence, finally broken by Colin: “I’m guilty of a crime, and it’s right that I’m here. But I’d like people to know that there’s more to me than that.”
Picture credit: Jillian Edelstein