If you are going to do needlepoint in prison, you have to be pretty darned secure with your masculinity.
The artisans of Fine Cell Work -- a UK program that teaches prisoners needlepoint and then sells their work – make carefully stitched items like linens in a 12th-century style, handmade patchwork quilts, and cushions with fleur de lys designs or modern graphics.
80% of the stitchers are men, the classes all have waiting lists, and when you know this, you can’t stop imagining a 300-pound convict named The Crusher meditatively bent over his tapestry.
Debuting this fall is a line of cushions with tattoo designs. Stroll through any gentrified enclave and you might find something similar in a precious boutique, but nothing with such a backstory. Much of today’s cool home décor offers detached irony as a side benefit. Or a primary feature. But Fine Cell Work’s collection turns that smug hipster distance on its head. You can’t get more authentic than this handiwork. Yet at the same time, the collection, and these tattoo pillows in particular, maintain a healthy sense of humor. (Elsewhere in the collection are cushions sewn with a prisoner’s day-counting hash marks and a smoking gun.)
Fine Cell Work is now done in 26 prisons across the UK. The organization’s mission is to rehabilitate prisoners by helping them earn money and “allowing them to reflect on and rebuild their lives through craft and achievement.” According to the website, convicted prisoners spend an average of 17 hours a day in their cells, even more on weekends and holidays. The prisoners do the work while locked in their cells, which must mean that needles and floss aren’t considered dangerous weapons or tools for escape.
Their website also contains some heartwarming testimonials. One prisoner describes the night he began his first needlepoint project. “They started unlocking us for breakfast, a whole night had come and gone with no thoughts of suicide, and no tears of melancholy.”
Yes, there is polite obfuscation about just what these guys did to get them in the slammer. It’s understandable, but it leaves you painfully curious about the guys as your 3-year-old daughter starts chewing on the corner of a cushion.
But that’s what makes these pillows so powerfully provocative. If you put one on your bed, the whole room will begin to ring with meaning. You will think about the unseen authors of everything else – the Indonesian seamstress who made your curtains, the underpaid Mexican migrant worker who hemmed your sheets – and you will also think about the power of art in general to transform lives and dispel demons.
Visit www.finecellwork.co.uk to purchase pillows and quilts, to donate, and to learn more.
Fine Cell Work
UK inmates earn and explore redemption through craft