Author Tracy Chevalier on quilting with prisoners: ‘The more I look the more I see the emotion. It’s deeply personal’

Tracy Chevalier with the sleep quilt

Tracy Chevalier with the sleep quilt - Credit: Archant

It’s hard to imagine hardened prisoners taking up embroidery, but that’s exactly what Dartmouth Park author Tracy Chevalier asked them to do when she commissioned ‘The Sleep Quilt’

Tracy chevalier with the sleep quilt

Tracy chevalier with the sleep quilt - Credit: Archant

The charity Fine Cell Work runs rehabilitation projects in 30 British prisons, training inmates in needlework to stitch during the long hours in their cells.

Offering paid, skilled, creative work has a calming, therapeutic effect and helps foster “hope, discipline and self-belief” says novelist Tracy Chevalier who commissioned a quilt after visiting projects in Wandsworth and Brixton prisons.

The author has been a keen quilter ever since researching her 2013 book The Last Runaway, which featured a young Quaker who quilted. Chevalier’s commission saw inmates from eight prisons designing and embroidering 10x10in squares that expressed their feelings about sleep. The finished quilt has since gone on display at various exhibitions and now features in a fund-raising book.

“I like that it’s more than the sum of its parts,” says Chevalier as she spreads it out in her Dartmouth Park home.

“A quilt literally takes on the DNA of its maker; the blood, sweat skin and tears as you labour and cry over it. Among the sheep-counting and clock watching, stories have come out, dreams of past life and family. The more I look the more I see the emotion coming out of it, it’s deeply personal and moving.”

Images of The Sleep Quilt

Images of The Sleep Quilt - Credit: Archant

Chevalier saw at first hand how volunteers visit prisons to teach embroidery skills, commissioning inmates to make quilts and cushion covers which are sold online. Stella McCartney, Gavin Turk and Cornelia Parker have all commissioned or designed work for the charity.

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“It’s done to a high standard and they can use the money to buy extra things in prison or as a nest egg when they leave so they don’t go back to crime. When you’re released they give you £46 and put you on the street.”

Chevalier admits many prisoners initially sign up “because they get paid and they think it will be easier than washing dishes.”

“But it rapidly becomes something else. It boosts their self-esteem to make beautiful things. There’s not much beauty or colour in prison. They work with beautiful fabrics and thread, get regular contact with women from the outside, and praise when they finish something.

“Some of these guys have never been praised in their lives and suffer from very low self esteem. It makes them feel better about themselves.”

Images of The Sleep Quilt

Images of The Sleep Quilt - Credit: Archant

Initially commissioned for an exhibition titled Things You Do In Bed, Chevalier thought sleep was less controversial than the other themes of birth, sex, illness and death.

“It surprised me how much they found it upsetting. Sleep is one of the few unscheduled times in prison. It’s supposed to be an escape but many prisoners sleep badly, have bad dreams or insomnia. Beds are uncomfortable, lights are never off, it’s noisy, and like for all of us if you have trouble on your mind, you go to bed and think ‘why did I do that? Why did I let people down, why can’t I see my kids?”

When Chevalier visited Wandsworth she had never been in a prison before.

“I was so curious and really nervous, I thought the atmosphere would be tense or angry but it was a remarkable afternoon. The prisoners were so eager to please and show me their work. They were very polite while I was talking but what they really wanted to do was talk because they don’t get contact with people who aren’t prisoners.”

As for the macho issue, Chevalier says the male quilters are respected because they are getting paid.

Images of The Sleep Quilt

Images of The Sleep Quilt - Credit: Archant

“The prisoner who spent six weeks putting the squares together was the biggest macho burly guy who was also into weightlifting. I couldn’t believe he didn’t get stick for it.”

Both lifers and prisoners in the isolation wing had a hand in the quilt but she never asked what anyone was in for.

“You take them as they are, right here right now. It was moving to see how stitching really makes a difference to how they feel about themselves. They want to tell their stories.”

Chevalier herself attends a weekly quilting group in Dartmouth Park and enjoys the social aspect of showing work and sharing news of daily life.

“I spend most of my time with words so I like something non-verbal and practical to do that’s playing with colour, pattern and texture. In many ways quilting is different from writing, but oddly the process is not so dissimilar. You edit a quilt just like writing, add more or less, rip out what’s not working and focus in on a small sentence or stitch while keeping in mind the big picture. What is also true of all creativity is that feeling of the reality never being as good as you imagined.”

Images of The Sleep Quilt

Images of The Sleep Quilt - Credit: Archant

The Sleep Quilt

Just two of the quilt’s 63 squares are by women – reflecting the fact that only 4,000 of England and Wales’ 85,000 strong prison population are female.

In the book, prisoners explain their design choices; one portrays herself dreaming of the campervan in which she will “drive around and be a free spirit once again,” Another inmate on suicide watch, woken every two hours with a torch, reflects the nightly scenario against an intricate background of embroidered brickwork.

While one man movingly evokes the bedtime story he read to his children about three children who go fishing for stars in a wooden shoe, another portrays the daughter he has never met who represents his “burden of shame”.

Images of The Sleep Quilt

Images of The Sleep Quilt - Credit: Archant

The word sleep broken behind bars reflects the broken sleep one inmate suffers from.

“In prison there is no true rest even when you are behind a cell door,” writes one quilter. Another embroiders a tattoo. He says “prison is madness, chaos and tattoos” but adds he’s proud to have made work that has been exhibited “it may be small and insignificant but it’s my mark and it’s there”.

The Sleep Quilt is published by Pallas Athene £14.99

A kickstarter is running to raise funds both for the book and for the charity. All proceeds from this campaign will go to Fine Cell Work and to the many projects it runs supporting prisoners both inside prison and when they come out.

To donate to the campaign, click here.