Thursday, September 21, 2017


Tracy Chevalier joins forces with charity to help prisoners build their self-esteem and hope

“It was a challenge. I had just joined Fine Cell Work. Caroline, the volunteer teacher, asked me to do a square for the quilt and explained what it was about. She said what do you guys dream about when in prison. I said to be honest I don’t dream any more. I haven’t dreamed for years. To me prison is all about madness and chaos and tattoos. Caroline saw my tattoos and said we haven’t got one of those on the quilt. To me tattoos and people are very similar. It tells a story of a time and a place, it’s a permanent marker. It’s like me on this earth. ”Prisoner partaking in the Sleep Quilt project

“Prisoners may initially agree to work with Fine Cell Work because they will be paid, but most of them get far more out of the experience than money … Many inmates suffer from low self-esteem. They have never made anything constructive or beautiful before, and have never been praised. Doing so is like watering a dried-out plant and seeing it come back to life.”Tracy Chevalier

The Sleep Quilt is unlike any other quilt you will have seen. Commissioned by Tracy Chevalier, it is entirely stitched and quilted by prisoners in the UK.

Each of the 63 squares explores what sleep means for them. A moment of escape for some, for others a dark return to all they most regret in life, sleep has a great significance in jail that is only strengthened by the difficulty of finding it in the relentlessly noisy, hot and cramped environment.

By turns poignant, witty, light-hearted and tragic, The Sleep Quilt shines a light on lives that few outside can imagine. An essay by Tracy Chevalier and an Introduction by Katy Emck, Director of Fine Cell Work, the charity that made the quilt possible, as well as many quotations from the people who have embroidered the 63 patches, frame this remarkable work launched by Pallas Athene Books on 31st October.

Each square, printed in full colour, appears on one page so that readers can fully appreciate both the outstanding craftsmanship required (often the fruit of weeks of patient dedication on the prisoners’ part) and the meaning conveyed by the artwork.

All royalties from the sales of the book will go to Fine Cell Work.

“The word ‘sleep’ conjures up memories of when I put my children to bed. ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod’ was a favourite bedtime story that I read to them frequently. My sleep quilt tells this story of three children who go fishing for stars in a wooden shoe.”

“I have always suffered with insomnia and often had to resort to using an eye mask… The sleeping woman represents me and my dream – love of the outside, the beach, owning a beach hut and a vintage VW camper van to drive around in and be a free spirit once again.”

“Sleep in prison can be sporadic. It is usually interrupted by thoughts of the past, maybe good ones but also regrets. Thoughts about friends, family and loved ones. Hopes and aspirations for the future. In designing my block I have taken my sleep thoughts and represented them as four hearts, each standing for a family member and their children, and also a close friend. The buttons inside the hearts represent the family members. Across the rest of the design is a scattering of buttons. The smaller ones represent dreams, aspirations and past happy thoughts and events. The large buttons represent the things in life that make it hard to achieve positive goals. However, these buttons can be broken and shattered into smaller particles, given time and the right direction in life.”
About Tracy Chevalier: An American-British novelist, best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, her interest in quilting was sparked by her research for a novel, The Last Runaway, and she is now a committed quilter. When the novel was published in 2013, she was contacted by Danson House, a Grade I Listed Palladian Villa in South East London, to curate a quilt show which she decided to call What We Do in Bed. At the same time, she was contacted by ‘Fine Cell Work’ to come and talk about her book to a group of prisoners. This experience made such a strong impression on her that she decided to commission a quilt from the prisoners for her show. It would be called The Sleep Quilt and prisoners were asked to express their feelings about sleep, either in images or words or both.

About Fine Cell Work: a charity and social enterprise that runs rehabilitation projects in thirty British prisons by training prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework, undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells, to foster hope, discipline and self-belief.

“I pondered the necessity of prisoners having something worthwhile to do during their long hours of lonely idleness. I wanted that work to be creative, enjoyable, worthwhile and saleable. I was determined that the work should be a professional standard, no whiff of charitable acceptance about it, and should be something of which its creator could be proud and our future buyers wish to own. I wanted the prisoner on release to have as much money as he or she had earned.” Lady Anne Tree, Founder of Fine Cell Work

“As an officer you have to wear two hats. It's a bit of a split personality. With Fine Cell Work you suddenly realise you're a human being and not just a uniform. Prisoners come and talk to you and realise you're a human being too. I am doing something for a worthwhile charity and possibly giving inmates who have an entrenched view of ‘The System’ a different angle to consider”. Officer, HMP Wandsworth

The Sleep Quilt, a collaboration between Tracy Chevalier and charity ‘Fine Cell Work’

Published by Pallas Athene Books

Hardback; 80 colour photographs; 145 x 145 mm 240pp; £14.99

ISBN: 978 1 84368 146 5

A Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign has been started, through which the publisher is planning to fund at least part of the books’ printing (all funds raised via Kickstarter will go towards the book and to the charity itself). Kickstarter is a website allowing people to raise money for arts-based projects.

The Sleep Quilt’s Kickstarter initiative ends mid-November. The link is:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. I saw an exhibition of Fine Cell quilts which I think must have been at the York Quilt Museum here in the UK, and the standard of workmanship was incredible. I also love the book The Last Runaway and can recommend it as a good read.