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  • Photo: Matt Watson / courtesy fine cell work

Enterprising work with Fine Cell Work

Fine Cell Work successfully trains prisoners in sewing and embroidery

This year, social enterprise Fine Cell Work celebrates its 20th anniversary. First set up by the aristocratic social reformer Lady Anne Tree, the charity now provides training in sewing, embroidery, quilting and patchwork to around 300 prisoners across Britain each year, as well as opportunities for paid employment that makes the most of these newfound skills. 

When Fine Cell Work started out in 1997, it was the latter part of this remit that seemed particularly radical. The Home Office was sceptical about how prisoners earning wages might be perceived by the public, but Tree was indefatigable, convinced of the benefits it would bring after decades spent visiting prisons. She lobbied tirelessly: real work, with real pay cheques to match, would make inmates better equipped to re-enter society – an argument both she and her charity would go on to win many times over.

Since then, Fine Cell Work has collaborated with numerous prestigious artists, designers and public figures, working on commissions for the likes of English Heritage, the Royal Palaces and the V&A. Recent accolades include an OBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list for founding director Katy Emck, and a major grant from the Big Lottery Fund, paving the way for the charity to establish a craft workshop in the capital, the Fine Works Hub, by the close of the year. 

Magna Carta (An Embroidery), Cornelia Parker, 2015. Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Library and in association with the Embroiderers’ Guild, Fine Cell Work, Hand & Lock and the Royal School of Needlework. Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and by the John Fell OUP Research Fund.  Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

‘It’s going to be a workshop for ex-offenders where they get training and employment support after they are released from prison,’ Emck explains. ‘They’re people we have worked with on our training programme in prison, who have done well and shown commitment and a desire to continue. It involves a significant expansion of Fine Cell Work and our production capacity. We will, from the end of this year, be open for business for a wider range of commissions, in terms of making soft furnishing for interior designers and other customers.’

Though it’s a new departure for the charity, it’s an ambition Emck and her colleagues have nurtured ‘for a very long time’, and for the past three years the charity has refined the model in practice, offering post-prison support to 13 ex-offenders through a small studio in the charity’s Victoria offices. ‘It’s been very successful,’ says Emck. ‘We’ve had a 92 per cent success rate, meaning a re-offending rate of 8 per cent versus the national average of 46 per cent.’ 

Of the 13 men the charity has been working with in Victoria, seven have also found work in jobs including costume-making and leatherwork – a hugely promising start for the hub, which will aim to make participants as employable as possible. ‘Ex-offenders face huge barriers… It’s a nonsense really,’ says Emck. ‘Obviously justice has to be done, but it’s an ineffective system as so many go back [inside], and can’t function properly after imprisonment. It’s extremely expensive, sad and chaotic.’

For Emck, the charity’s expansion this year is hopefully just the beginning of a new chapter for Fine Cell Work and the prisoners it works with. While it is sticking with needles and thread for the foreseeable future, Emck believes the charity could one day expand to provide training in other crafts: ‘We want to extend as a model. I completely believe that craftwork in prisons is a very good model for training and rehabilitation, because all kinds of craftwork take a long time, and are not very cost-effective outside, except in places like China and India. The pay just doesn’t equate with the hours they take. But in prison, craftwork has always existed, and always will, because people want to do things with their hands.’ 

While much has been achieved by the charity over the past two decades, its director’s focus remains practical, looking to the year ahead: ‘There is work out there, so that’s what we want to make people ready for. We know there are lots of niche craft skills that it’s really hard to find workers for, like glove-making or tie-finishing. We’d like people to be able to approach us for those kinds of hand-work – we hope to be known as the place you can come to find these types of skills.’ 

As prison populations continue to swell, and inmates are confined to their cells for increasing lengths of time, it’s a mission that seems as worthy of our attention as ever.