“I can tell by the way you speak, your mannerisms, you’re very polite,” says Mr C. Oh dear, two minutes into tea with Mr C, former inmate of HMP Wandsworth and star volunteer for social enterprise Fine Cell Work and he’s already ratted me out as a former public school girl. Character analysis is a skill I imagine you quickly hone at Her Majesty’s pleasure when thrown together with people from all walks of life. Maybe he’s worked it out so quickly because he describes his own background as not too dissimilar and one characterised by “maintaining a stiff upper lip at all times.”
Before prison, Mr C (as he prefers to be known, to protect his anonymity) tells me he had a successful career as a CAD designer. That’s blown all my prepped questions out the window then I think to myself. You see, I’d come along to the interview anticipating we’d talk about the power of colour; it’s mood altering qualities, the therapeutic effects of drawing and hand sewing and the freedom of creativity. I wanted to hear first hand about how all those things had got him through a prison sentence. But Mr C and I are both designers, we know all about the benefits of being a creative person.
So for once, I threw the preparation out the window and listened, not knowing quite where the conversation might lead. Mr C was never going to tell me what he went to prison for and in my mind it’s irrelevant. We talked about the fine line between those of us who think bad thoughts and those that act on them and I think there’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s too complex an issue to even debate. But to see the work of a man who takes on commemorative military embroidery and stitches embroideries like paintings, having previously never sewn a button on a shirt, is nothing short of extraordinary. It is to witness a man changed and immensely proud of his work.
Faced with the monotony of cell life he signed up for every hobby going; art, music, computer classes. Anything to avoid the cell, drugs, alcohol and fights. He took a tailoring job which paid £12.50 per week, purely because it was the highest paid and meant he had more to spend on tobacco, toiletries and calls home. “Everyone laughed at me trying to work the sewing machine pedal, but I kept going till I could perfect a stitched square spiral. ” After that he raced his way through sweatshirts, duffle coats and PE shorts, made for prison issue.
A volunteer for the social enterprise Fine Cell Work picked up on his drawing and sewing skills and asked if he might like to be trained in hand embroidery. This would lead to paid commissions, which Mr C could also stitch during cell time. Initially, finding the work difficult to grasp, a Polish inmate whose tree trunk like fingers managed to dance across quilts like ballerinas, helped show him the ropes. A natural affinity with computer software from his CAD design days also meant he quickly hit his stride programming digital sewing machines to machine embroider.
After what must have seemed like a lifetime, he eventually was released, a time when he needed FCW’s support more than ever; finding that first job hasn’t been easy. I’m heartened to hear that Hand & Lock (the embroidery atelier) generously sponsored him to take lessons in gold work and military embroidery and he’s even collaborated with Levis.
And so what next for Mr C? “Self sufficiency and a fresh start,’ he declares with eyes beaming. I am in in awe of his positivity. He is currently undertaking a Certified Ethical Hacker Training programme, an apprenticeship award sponsored by the Lady Anne Tree Memorial Fund (FCW bursary fund). In the future, he hopes to split his time between employment and continuing his paid commission based work for FCW. “I’ll do anything for them, if it weren’t for them I’m not sure where I’d be.” Everyone deserves a second chance in life and Mr C more than anyone I met in 2015.
To find out more about Fine Cell Work’s history or better still purchase their beautiful products, click here.