Mighty fine stitching – the prisoners learning the art of needlework

Meet Fine Cell Work – the social enterprise teaching offenders to create intricate hand-stitched accessories – now available in the Big Issue Shop!

Carefully hand-embroidered cushions aren’t synonymous with prison. Images of people behind bars tend to centre around exactly that, a lonely prisoner in their cell.

Fine Cell Work, however, are changing that. The social enterprise is enabling offenders to spend their time in prison fostering hope, discipline and self-esteem as they become highly skilled in the art of creative needlework.

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Currently working in 32 British prisons and engaging over 500 prisoners each year, Fine Cell Work addresses key issues affecting inmates’ offending behaviours: establishment and reinforcement of work skills, building relationships, and mental resilience by teaching offenders to create beautifully intricate hand-stitched canvas bags, aprons and cushions.

Prisoners are taught by experienced volunteers and staff to work in their cells and in workshops. Having the opportunity to work independently helps them to regain control of their lives and allows them to maintain dignity.

They gain a sense of connection to the world outside prison through the sale of their work, which you can buy through the Big Issue Shop.

The statement embroidered ‘jailbags’ are one of their most popular designs. The spacious canvas shoppers are a stylish way to carry around all your swag.

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Fine Cell Work hope to allow prisoners to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend with training and support on release as well.

One stitcher has found new self-worth from the project: “What I find most gratifying about Fine Cell Work is that my efforts are not judged in light of my crimes, nor the fact that I am in prison, but rather on their own merits – the artistry, the attention to detail and the aesthetic pleasure they give to people which is proven by their willingness to spend not inconsiderable sums of money when buying them.”

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At the Fine Works Hub, a London-based workshop the team provide work experience, formal training and employment. At the Clothworkers Studio, apprentices are able to complete textile qualifications; work with an employment mentor; gain employment support and take up opportunities in product manufacture and design, as well as sales and stock management.

Fine Cell Work has the largest workforce of hand-stitchers in Europe – 290 at any one time, and counting. Last year 4,870 products were made in lock-ups across the UK. Prisoners spend an average of 24 hours a week crafting finely embroidered cushions, patchwork quilts, a range of contemporary bags and giftware in their cells.

Shop the rest of the collection in The Big Issue Shop.