Fine Cell Work: Prison Inmates Learn the Art of Making

Prison inmates learn needlework while incarcerated.

If there’s one requirement for creating beautiful and high quality embroidery, it’s a generous amount of free time. And while the craftsmen behind the cushions, quilts, and bags of Fine Cell Work may not be your stereotypical needlepoint enthusiasts, free time is definitely not something they are lacking.

That is because Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise business founded in the UK, trains incarcerated individuals throughout Britain’s prison system in the art of needle point. Originally founded in the 1960s by the wealthy heiress of Colefax and Fowler, a leading British decorating firm, the business uses volunteers from the Royal College of Needlework to train prisoners and courts top designers including Cath Kidston and Tom Dixon to design its products.

Fine Cell Work’s finished goods—which have been commissioned by the V&A Museum and international designers alike—do not resemble a rudimentary craft project by any means. That’s entirely intentional, says CEO Katy Emck.

“We always knew the work would have to be top quality in order to be saleable in high end markets,” said Emck. “The prisoners know that they are stitching for money and that this is professional work that’s highly valued in the outside world. They know they have something to live up to and that’s very good for them.”

It wasn’t until 1995 that the UK’s Home Office allowed prisoners to start earning a wage for their efforts. The average prison wage is about £8 per week, which inmates use to buy incidentals such as soap and tobacco. Fine Cell Work’s stitchers—three quarters of which are male—have the potential to double that wage. This, Emck explains, is an important part of the program’s success because it works as a strong incentive that counteracts the feminine stigma associated with needlepoint.

“It’s amazing because some of [the prisoners] start reading design magazines like Wallpaper and Harpers and Queen because they see their products are in them. It opens up a new world for them.”

The work, which is largely completed in the privacy of inmates’ cells and conducted 20 to 40 hours per week, is a powerful antidote to the lives of turmoil and roughness that many prisoners have continually faced.

“Instead of smashing up your cell you can channel your aggression in a positive way,” said one inmate and Fine Cell stitcher at HMP Maidstone. “I usually spend about two to three hours an evening doing tapestry work. It helps you realize there are alternatives to committing crime.”

While Fine Cell Work’s efforts are expanding—there is a waiting list of inmates who want to join and more prisons who would like to begin the program—they can only grow as fast as product sales and support from patrons will allow. Emck, who has spent her career working in prison rehabilitation projects including theater and stitching, says that prison governors are eager to get programs like Fine Cell Work into their facilities because they know that “an occupied prisoner is a happy prisoner.”

Through committing to something for their entire sentence, inmates experience the dignity of work. The gratitude and appreciation expressed in customer letters can often be the first form of positive reinforcement they have known.

“What you see so often in prisons is people who are dangerous to society but it’s so clear and obvious that they’ve led deprived lives,” said Emck. “The deprivation only gets worse in prison and unless they are nurtured and supported in some way they cannot be expected to come out and be fine people.”

To shop or support the work of Fine Cell Work, you can visit their website.


Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist from California with a degree in Environmental Studies. Her work has been published in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, the Ecologist, and the Guardian Environment Network. A passion for travel, running barefoot outdoors, and reconnecting people to what is good dominates most of her thoughts. You can follow her writing on Twitter and Tumblr.