Fine Cell Work: How Taking Up Needlework Is Helping High-Security Prisoners Find Self-Worth

How Needlework Is Helping Prisoners Find Self-Worth

Around the country, men and women in high-security prisons are picking up a needle and thread and learning how to sew.


"It enables them to be calm, productive, creative and to mentally and spiritually get beyond prison," Katy Emck, the founding director of Fine Cell Work tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that trains prisoners in creative needlework - but it's not your average crafts club.

Inmates are taught to embroider highly-crafted cushions, bags, pictures and patchwork quilts to such a high standard that they are able to earn money making commissioned pieces.

Items created by inmates signed up to the scheme have been featured in the likes of the V&A, the National Gallery and the Tate Modern.

"It’s more suitable for long-term prisoners," Katy explains. "We like to work with people who will spend two years or more sewing with us so they get really skilled, they have time to change and learn how to develop new relationships."

Katy Emck

Fine Cell Work was the brainchild of Lady Anne Tree who volunteered teaching needlework to prisoners at HMP Holloway women's prison in the 1960s.

After spending decades trying to persuade the Home Office that prisoners should be able to earn money for their work, the organisation was officially launched in 1997.

Katy was Lady Anne's first employee and helped to turn her dream into a reality.

From humble beginnings (Fine Cell HQ was originally a bedsit in Bloomsbury) the charity now has 60 volunteers training more than 400 prisoners in 29 prisons across England, Scotland and Wales.

The scheme is open to both women and men, such as 50-year-old Neil, who was involved with Fine Cell Work for 12 of the 20 years he was in custody.

"I thought sewing and needlework was just a thing that ladies used to do - my sister did knitting and things like that - but I was pleasantly surprised by what it involved," Neil tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

A cushion made by a prisoner

Although the financial benefits of the scheme were an appeal, boredom was the main reason Neil decided to sign up.

"In prison there’s not much you can do constructively with your time. A lot of the stuff in there is tedious and I was getting very down," he says.

"It's the same old routine day in day out - there doesn’t seem to be any purpose to what you’re doing.

"Even the educational classes are at a basic level. Obviously there are prisoners with very low levels of education, so they need to grasp basic English and maths principles, but I didn’t need that."

As a result, Neil would spend a lot of his time sleeping or watching "a load of rubbish" on TV. He tried to do some work with the Open University to occupy his mind, but still found that "a bit of a chore".

"It was very much about ‘existing’ before I got involved with Fine Cell," he adds.

Products made by prisoners. Credit: Simon Bevan

Thankfully, working with Katy and her team changed Neil's outlook on life in prison and enabled him to plan for his future outside.

"I felt a lot brighter and content once I had something to focus on," he says.

"As time went on my stitching improved, to the extent that commissioned pieces started coming my way. I'd sometimes get cards back from the clients who had purchased one of my items, saying how much they enjoyed it - that was a real joy."

You'd think sewing would be a risky skill to teach in prisons - after all, it does require the use of items such as scissors which wouldn't usually be allowed in prisons - but Katy says in her 18 years of working with the charity there has never been an incident.

Fine Cell classes are taught in groups and scissors are counted in and out at the start and end of sessions. Most prisoners are allowed to take needles to their cells though to work on their individual projects.

"They’re allowed to use ballpoint pens in their cells and frankly a ballpoint pen could do as much harm as a needle, so needles are not threatening in the way scissors are," Katy explains.

"There was one time a guy got frustrated and cut up his own work in class - a lot of the prisoners have mental health problems - but essentially they like their work, their committed to it so they don’t get destructive."

Neil adds that the scheme "improves relations within the prison" by "breaking down barriers between inmates, officers and other members of staff", so this often makes safety less of an issue.

Products made in prison

As a result of the positive impact the work has on prisoners' happiness levels, it has short term and long term benefits.

"For many of them it is the first stage in thinking about change and thinking about their future," Katy says.

"Many of them they are so caught up in anger, with the system and with themselves, that it’s hard for them to move forward. But (we) can help them to move forward."

"It gives them work skills and it gives them experience of success. It enables them to be part of a community that is not about crime."

Katy says she often notices a physical manifestation of increased self-worth when working with prisoners.

"You see people become cleaner, they’re often able to look you in the eye. They become more polite and they become better at dealing with each other in class," she explains.

"Prison can be very alienating and people are on edge most of the time, but what you see is a development of trust and confidence.

"You also see people getting incredibly skilled and incredibly proud of what they do, and wanting to share it."

This sense of self-worth meant Neil was inspired to sign up as a Fine Cell mentor, meaning he would pass the skills he had learned on to newer prisoners and help with the co-ordination of different groups.

He has recently been released from prison, but doesn't plan to leave the charity behind any time soon.

"Fine Cell has had that much of an impact that I’m compelled to continue to help and volunteer with the charity now that I’ve left the prison. I’ll do whatever I can to be helpful and fit into the organisation because I have a passion for what they do," he says.

He believes that while most organisations focus on how they are going to make a profit, this is a company that empowers people.

A Fine Cell Work product shot. Credit: Simon Bevan

Neil was able to purchase a musical instrument while he was in prison and has just bought a racing bike.

According to Katy, the average UK prisoner earns £8 per week, but a prisoner working with Fine Cell Work can earn an additional £8 - £10 by sewing for around 30 hours per week.

It may not sound like a lot of money but it can make all the difference and reduce the chance of a prisoner reoffending.

"Someone doing very well with Fine Cell Work could maybe save around £500-600 per year. In prison terms that is a lot of money. If you imagine someone doing it for a few years and coming out with a few thousand pounds saved, that is a massive achievement," says Katy.

"When they come out most prisoners have nothing, they’ve lost their homes, so this money can help them get back on track.

"They have cash for the essentials, like a deposit for renting a flat or buying clothes that are suitable for an interview.

"Some prisoners send the money back to their families. A lot of them feel like they’ve confined their families to a sentence too, so if they can give something back it shifts the dynamic a bit."

As Fine Cell Work only has nine paid members of staff, they simply do not have the resources to keep track of all prisoners once they have been released.

But many prisoners do choose to keep in touch and some have put their needlework skills to good use, working in the textile industry as machinists, curtain makers and upholsterers today.

Going forward, Katy would like to extend the Fine Cell Work scheme so that she and her colleagues and able to continue working with more prisoners once they have been released. She believes the Government needs to support more organisations to do the same.

"The bureaucracy of prisons should be radically decreased, there needs to be more of a connection between what people learn in prison and what they do when they get out," she says.

"At the moment they go to prison, they come out and nobody wants to know them, so a lot of the good work that does currently happen gets lost.

"There needs to be more of a link between what happens inside and the support ex-prisoners get on the outside."

It's clear that Fine Cell Work has had a positive effect on a lot of people and helps men like Neil reintegrate with society.

As Katy says: "Prison is all about people having their freedom taken away, but actually, if people have something to control that’s positive it enables them to behave differently and feel that they are different people and move beyond the vicious cycle of criminality they often find themselves in.

"If they’re labeled as criminals, often they’ll behave as criminals."

Before You Go

Go To Homepage