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How Tracy Chevalier found stitching unlocks the creative talent of prisoners

Jane Clinton talks to novelist Tracy Chevalier about working with prisoners who embroider

03 November, 2017 — By Jane Clinton

Detail of Planets in the Sky and Sun on a spread. Photos by Heini Schneebeli

TRACY Chevalier spreads out a quilt – a vision of intricate stitching that is so much more than just fabric and thread.

For each square that makes up what is called The Sleep Quilt was lovingly embroidered by prisoners from across the UK.

Tracy, best known for her novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, commissioned the piece for the 2014 quilt exhibition, Things We Do In Bed, at Danson House in Bexleyheath.

Her own interest in and love of quilting came while researching her novel, The Last Runaway.

“It was serendipitous that within a week of the call about the exhibition I was contacted by the charity Fine Cell Work to visit Wandsworth Prison to talk about quilting,” says Tracy from her home in Dartmouth Park.

Fine Cell Work, teaches prisoners fine stitching. Their work is sold to high-end stores and the inmates get a small percentage of the proceeds from the sales.

Inspired and impressed by the work (which includes cushion covers, tablecloths, quilts and church vestments), Tracy wanted to become more involved with the charity and so came the idea for The Sleep Quilt.

The result is an often poignant, witty and revealing display of what sleep means to these prisoners.

Tracy Chevalier

There is a beautifully embroidered prison door opening out onto a lush landscape with the words “Dreams, My Only Escape”. For some the lack of sleep preoccupies them; another is reminded of the bedtime stories they told their children.

“Some of the squares were funny, some were upsetting, some were decorative,” says Tracy. “I sat one afternoon sewing and chatting with the guys at Wandsworth and it was just like being in my quilting class, I had to keep reminding myself I was in a prison. I really loved seeing how they all collaborated.

“This work is a real refuge for them and gave them a feeling like they can make a difference and that people outside value what they have made.”

A book capturing the spirit of the project has now been published with all the royalties going to Fine Cell Work. There are close-up photographs of the squares as well as an essay by Tracy and a contribution by Katy Emck, the director of Fine Cell Work.

The most moving contributions, however, come from the prisoners themselves.

Some speak of how their involvement with Fine Cell Work has given them self-belief, as well as the satisfaction of “putting something back into society”. Others say it as a way of channelling negative feelings – a therapeutic endeavour – and remark on how it gives them a sense of connection to the outside world: to a world beyond prison.

Another example of a prisoner’s quilt work

Despite these testimonials and the waiting list of prisoners who want to get involved with Fine Cell Work, Tracy explains that there can be resistance to the project.

“I wouldn’t say this is a society that is sympathetic to prisoners and Fine Cell Work is constantly having to try and justify itself,” she says. “People don’t like it that the prisoners get paid for their work and argue ‘why are you giving these people pleasure?’.

“The reality is it is not a lot of money for the hundreds of hours they put in. Also, most people would rather be out than sitting in a cell.”

However, she feels that there is “very little official safety net” for people when they are released.

“Sometimes when a prisoner gets out they get £46 and are put out on the street,” she says.

“You cannot live off £46 – no wonder people immediately recommit [crime]. If you have a little bit of savings at least you might be able to put a down payment on a rent or you can get a bus ticket to get back to your family.

“Prison in this country is very much about punishment and a lot less about rehabilitation – there are some things going on but there is not enough of it.”

For Tracy, who is currently working on a novel about the cushions and kneelers at Winchester Cathedral, the experience has changed her views on prison.

“Something in me has definitely shifted,” she says. “Seeing the collaboration and the pride people had in their work was very moving. I now think about prison very differently. Some of these prisoners will one day be back in society, how are we trying to make that re-entry into society successful?”

• The Sleep Quilt. By Tracy Chevalier, Pallas Athene Books, £14.99

• The publisher has set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds both for the book and for the charity, Fine Cell Work: http://bit.ly/TheSleepQuiltKickstarter

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