Behind the Charity: Fine Cell Work | Edge & Company
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11 Jun 2018 / Homewares

Behind the Charity: Fine Cell Work.

Fine Cell Work was founded in 1997 by activist Lady Anne Tree, who was determined to improve the standards of prisoners lives and the work that was available to them. It took Tree three long decades of campaigning to finally receive the green light.
11 Jun 2018 / Homewares

Behind the Charity: Fine Cell Work

Fine Cell Work was founded in 1997 by activist Lady Anne Tree, who was determined to improve the standards of prisoners lives and the work that was available to them. It took Tree three long decades of campaigning to finally receive the green light.
Edge & Co - Fine Cell Work

Fine Cell Work now runs rehabilitation projects across 32 prisons in the UK and employs around 400 prisoners. The prisoners are trained in high quality needlework and paid to create beautiful and innovative tapestry cushions, whilst building their self esteem to lead independent, crime-free lives.

Can you tell us a brief history of Fine Cell Work and why Lady Anne Tree wanted to set up a prison charity?

Lady Anne Tree came from a very privileged background. She was a friend to one of the Mitford sisters who had been put in Holloway prison for the beliefs of her fascist husband and because of this, started to visit the prison regularly. When visiting her friend, she chatted to the other prisoners about her hobbies and interests as she was on the board for the Royal School of Needlework at the time and she asked the prisoners if they would like to learn to sew. Using her connection with the Royal School of Needlework, Lady Anne arranged for volunteers to go into Holloway prison and teach some of the prisoners.

Lady Anne’s family were the owners of an interior design firm Colefax and Fowler, and a commission came to them from the CEO of CBS in America for two carpets. Lady Anne saw an opportunity and asked her family if they could be stitched by the prisoners currently being taught in Holloway. When the carpets were ready they were sold to the CEO for £10,000 which was a lot of money in the 60’s. Lady Anne was not one for exploiting people and worked to give a fair cut to the women who had stitched the carpets and yet was unable to give even a penny to them. This was the start of years of protesting and petitioning that eventually led to a change in the law, allowing prisoners to earn money working in their cells.

In 1997 Fine Cell Work officially started and Katy Emck, our now Founding Director, was employed for one day a week to run the charity from her bedroom. For a while she kept wool and canvas in plastic bags in her empty bathtub. The structure used was very similar to the one we use today and from the start the prisoners were paid a fair cut for what they produced. Lady Anne continued to source jobs through Colefax and Fowler, and our first commission was from designer John Stefanidis who still has designs with us today. The charity had a grand total of £2000 in the bank and no business plan, but from the beginning they had volunteers who were willing to teach and prisoners who were willing to learn, which ultimately drove them to keep going, develop and grow into the charity we are today.

What are the benefits of Fine Cell Work for the prisoners?

“As I started to do the work I was aware of a feeling of calmness that I was experiencing for the first time since coming to prison” – FCW Stitcher.

There are many benefits for the prisoners who stitch with Fine Cell Work. Stitching allows the prisoners to help themselves in all sorts of ways, from being able to earn money to send to their family, to supporting their battles with mental health.

In some prisons, prisoners can spend up to 23 hours a day in a cell. Fine Cell Work trains them to do high-quality, skilled, creative needlework to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem. Prisoners may also get the opportunity to learn sewing machine and textile production skills in our prison-based workshops.

We also guide them towards training and support on release. At the Fine Works Hub, a London-based workshop we provide work experience, formal training and employment. Within the hub sits the Clothworkers Studio, where apprentices are able to complete textile qualifications; work with an employment mentor; gain employment support; and take up opportunities to take up product manufacture and design, as well as sales and stock management.

96% of our stitchers are men, men with no experience of stitching that never thought they would be able to create delicate, intricate pieces of art. Fine Cell Work shows them that they can do things they never thought possible.

Edge & Co - Fine Cell Work

Do the prisoners design their own artwork or do they follow a brief?

Fine Cell Work collaborate with many esteemed artists and designers to create our beautiful range of products.

When a prisoner is ready to stitch a new item, they are given a kit. This comprises of wools or threads and a printed chart with instructions on how to stitch and what the finish piece should look like. There is some creative license however and some prisoners take up this challenge with gusto, we often have pieces arrive at our office with fantastic embellishments where a stitcher’s imagination has taken over. This is the beauty of handmade items; every piece is truly unique.

If we wanted to volunteer for Fine Cell Work how would we go about it?

An application form is available on our website here  for anyone looking to volunteer with us, we would love to hear from you. We are often particularly in need of volunteers to help us at events across the country, and in our London based pop-up shop.

What would volunteering involve?

Volunteering for Fine Cell Work is varied and very interesting. If you have experience in textiles you could be volunteering for our production team, who always need help cutting fabric and preparing kits to go into prisons.

If you have experience in career and development support you could apply to be a Volunteer Mentor. Our Open the Gate programme is dedicated to supporting ex-prisoners find further training and employment in the textiles industry and as part of this support we match them to a mentor.

We are always on the lookout for enthusiastic volunteers to help us sell our beautiful products at events across the UK- or even host an event yourself. These events are fast paced and fun and take place in some incredible places.

We also rely on our volunteers to go into prison and teach the prisoners stitching and support them with their work, however we are not looking for prison volunteers at the moment. If this sounds like something you would like to do in the future however please fill out the Volunteering form and you may be added to our waiting list.

Edge & Co - Fine Cell Work

What’s next for Fine Cell Work? Are there any new projects in the near future?

The great thing about Fine Cell work is that we are always busy and growing. We have some very exciting collaborations launching this year and we are looking to create ranges out of some of our most popular designs. We also have many exciting events lined up and lots of work to do growing our Open the Gates programme and trying to work with as many prisoners and ex-prisoners as possible.

Check out more of Fine Cell Work at –

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