Time on Their Hands


“Fine Cell Work trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.”

I met up with Kate the Commissions Consultant and Katie the Events Manager at Fine Cell Work’s office in Victoria, London to learn more about the charity’s work and textiles.

Where did the idea of working with prisoners come from?

Katie -The charity officially started in 1997 but was registered in 1995 and the idea was conceived in the 70s. The founder Lady Anne Tree had really close connections to Colefax and Fowler which is a fabric company and she was also a prison visitor in the 60s. She mainly visited various women’s prisons and a couple of women there had expressed a keen interest in sewing and stitching. At the time Lady Anne was working on a rug which she then asked the prison if she could have permission to take the rug in to see if the women could finish it. That’s where the idea initially came from. At that time you weren’t allowed to pay prisoners so she was part of group that campaigned on and off against it over a period of years. The law finally changed and that’s when she registered Fine Cell Work as a charity and got it off the ground when she recruited Katy Emck our Founding Director who’s still with the organisation now. It started with Lady Anne and Katy working out of a living room taking kits into prison and it blossomed into this.

So they would make samples and show the prisoners how to make them?

Katie – They produced kits, charts and all the bits that were needed to actually produce a final product and take them into prisons and go from there.

Only in women’s prisons?

Katie – Now we’re only in one women’s prison and thirty men’s prisons across the U.K. 97% of our stitchers are men.

Kate – We have more male prisoners partly because the female prison population is an awful lot smaller than the male population from that respect. I don’t know whether there are any accessibility issues. Every prison functions slightly different and some are easier to work in than others. We are trying to open up another female group that might happen early next year.


Would you take the idea somewhere else apart from prison?

Katie – I don’t think so; at the moment we have very ambitious model as it is. We recently received lottery funding to help us do some more transition work so that when people are released from prison they can work with us in a hub we’re going to set up to gain more work experience and build confidence outside of prison. This will hopefully help them into employment. We’re quite focused on that being our demographic at the moment and a lot of our funding comes in based on the fact on who we’re working with.

What types of textiles do the prisoners make?

Kate – It’s primarily needlepoint and embroidery; they’re the two main focus techniques. As Katie said, it started off with rug making which is where the needlepoint evolved more from. Some of our designs involve screen printing, in which case we do print those designs onto the fabric before they’re embroidered on but we can’t do that inside the prisons. Most are done on a blank canvas. The prints are done by an outworker for us but everything else we try and do in house or in prison wherever possible.

What do they make? I see a lot of cushions!

Katie – Cushions are the bulk of what they make. Quilts are a huge part too and there are four quilting groups now. They also make a lot of giftware like doorstops, lavender bags, Christmas decorations and purses.

Kate – They make aprons too. Our official party line is anything that can be stitched we will stitch. A massive part of Fine Cell Work is based on commissions, we do a lot of wall hangings and bespoke things for churches like furniture. Anything and everything! There’s nothing really that we would say no to.

Katie – We have a range of commissions clients too like interior designers, museums, National Heritage, stately homes and private orders.


So anyone can approach you with an idea?

Katie – There are very few limitations but the value of things can be limiting. Some of our stitchers are keen to learn upholstery, but we wouldn’t want to take an antique piece into prison, we’re cautious of those types of things. We do some gold work but it’s very basic work with basic threads. We have to be very careful with what imagery we use as we’re working with vulnerable people. Most of the time it’s not an issue and it’s very rare that comes up.

Who teaches the prisoners how to sew?

Katie – We have a magnificent team of volunteers around the country that go into the prisons to teach and guide them. With every kit we provide whether it’s a standard kit or a commissioned one we give detailed and complete instructions. When it comes to commissions they’re unique to each one. The kits also act as guides and references for the prisoners when the volunteers aren’t there to teach. Generally, they go in once or twice a month depending on the group. It’s a very short period of time they have contact with them for.

The prisoners must really like that outside contact.

Katie – Yeah I think they do. I believe it’s a sense of family and that’s the overall impression we get. A collective family experience as you’d normally get with stitch groups on the outside too. Like with women stitch groups, you get a sense of community and family spirit that comes together. There’s a therapy in the stitching. When you have an awful lot of time on your hands it makes a big difference. It gives them something to focus on and something to strive for because we also balance their pay with a bonus. It’s great that they stitch for money but we try to encourage them to achieve better in what they’re stitching.

Like the quality?

Katie – Yeah better results. Sometimes we have clients with tight deadlines and these help the prisoners to stay focused. Some of the guys that have come out of prison have saved quite a bit of money. Some also send money home. There was a guy that was getting married after his release and he saved for his wedding. The work gives them a purpose and hope to reach for. 

Kate – A lot of them like to send money home because their families send money in and it’s their small way to support their families. They also pay for things that are considered luxuries in the prison like teas and coffees. The most common things that they save for is a mobile phone or a bicycle. Particularly if they’re released into London because it’s so expensive to get around and a bike is the best way to combat that.


Do they ever have any of their own ideas that they’d like to work on?

Kate – We quite often have that come up and we’re very happy to supply the materials where possible as we get given a lot stock and donations from people. We help them achieve a design they come up with. They often want to make something personal for home but we can’t pay them for it but we’ll facilitate it as much as we can and give them advice. With our commissions we also do customer collaborations; we did a recent one with Luna & Curious where they came to us with an idea for a range to sell for Design Week and we took those ideas into the prisons and the prisoners were able to do some design work towards the finished cushions. We were able to put them into production and they were successful.

Katie – On a much smaller scale with quilts in particular, prisoners personalise and add little things of their own. Those types of work are my favourite because they have a personal touch to them.

Kate – It’s a bit of a double edged sword because that works well with the quilts because we sell them as one off pieces as well as the commissions that are designed but equally we would have terrible trouble if we allow the guys to become too creative with our mainstream pieces. Customers expect a sort of standardisation and it’s a logistical nightmare if each product is different. Some customers don’t mind but others do.

How do you approach the prisons? Do prisoners ask to be a part of Fine Cell Work?

Kate – It goes both ways really. Most of the prisons we’re in at the moment are ones we’re established in and have been for quite a number of years. It takes a lot of graft and hard work to set what we’re doing up. It takes a lot of relationship building. Once a group has been set up we then get advertised on notice boards in the prison and they also have an activities catalogue so people can register an interest for signing up for Fine Cell Work. We have a certain capacity for each group so we do have waiting lists for most of the prisons we’re in.


How many prisoners are there per group?

Katie – It’s between 12 and 14 per group. It’s that size for a number or reasons like number of volunteers, health and safety.

It’s hard to teach needle work to a large group.

Kate – It’s a privilege as well for them and their work is assessed. Quite often though prisoners will be moved with no warning to us. So we sometimes work with lone stitchers who work independently. We can’t visit them but as they’ve been on our books for some time they tend to know what they’re doing.

So they have permission to stitch without supervision?

Katie – Yes.  It’s the only job they can complete in cell as well as in the group sessions. Most of the other jobs the prisoners take on takes place outside the cell. They can work from 2 hours a day to 12 and can do as much they want.

You mentioned that materials are donated where do you buy them otherwise?

Kate – Most mainstream suppliers like Just Crafts and we have some trade relationships with companies such as Osborne and Little for a lot of our backing fabric. A lot of the big fabric suppliers will donate large amounts of end of rolls. We get a lot of donations from individuals too.

Katie – We get donated a lot of frames too and we never say no. We also do a lot of talks around the country with WI groups and Embroiders’ Guilds and quite often after that we get an influx of people that want to send us a lot of stuff. It all gets sent to us here and we have workshops in three prisons which is where the products are finished. Rolls of fabrics are kept at those prisons, and are often used for backing cushions.


What skills would a volunteer need?

Katie – From our perspective in the office it’s really good if they have embroidery skills or some interest in it. However, it’s not essential, we do have some volunteers with limited knowledge of sewing who help with other aspects of the charity, such as events or pop-up shops. Prison volunteers  are often skilled stitchers which helps if the prisoners have technical questions if our instructions aren’t quite clear. It helps when the volunteers are able to spot any mistakes so they can support the prisoners. Volunteers would need to have good people skills and have empathy and compassion.

Of course, the prisoners are there for a reason.

Kate – It’s a fine line really, but we take everybody that we work with inside and out at face value as to where they are now in their lives whatever they’re doing. We don’t know what any of the prisoners have done and we take them as we see them. The main thing that is that they have signed up to learn a new skill and want to work hard. A lot of our volunteers are retired or are semi-retired. They’re normally female and have been or are members of the Embroiders’ Guild or groups of that nature. We also have some volunteers that have a background in the legal system; we have a fantastic one that volunteers in a London based prison and she’s a retired barrister and does quilting. We have some retired teachers and head teachers. It’s a good balance.


Katie – We have volunteers that support us outside of the prisons too. We have a lot of skilled stitchers that come to the office and support with admin and different areas like that.

Do you need more volunteers?

Katie – We always do. Particularly with sales, events, pop up shops and fundraising.

You can follow Fine Cell Work here and find out how to become a volunteer on their website here


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