The Sleep Quilt project: Tracy Chevalier and Fine Cell Work

Art and auctions, Books — By on December 27, 2017 at 10:10 PM

Tracy Chevalier.

The Sleep Quilt project: Tracy Chevalier and Fine Cell Work

By Graciete Amaro

An impressive new programme of bringing the skills of the quiltmaker into problem areas of society has been championed in a new book.

The novelist Tracy Chevalier joined with a charity to commission a quilt – a quilt unlike any other – to help high security prisoners find self-respect and hope. The resulting counterpane has been entirely stitched and finished by prisoners in some of Britain’s toughest jails.

Known as The Sleep Quilt, a title shared by the book, it was fashioned in partnership with a charity called Fine Cell Work.

Being a keen embroiderer, I appreciate the way this programme has sparked an outpouring of creativity and solidarity.

In terms of craftwork, this is a marvellous achievement, but more importantly it has enabled prisoners to define a common goal that lifted their spirits and opened new horizons.

The quality of the 63 component pieces would do credit to any hobby quilter. A total of 80 inmates – all but two of them men – from eight prisons contributed to the Sleep Quilt initiative. From these contributions, 63 segments were chosen, laid out, sewn and fitted with the layers of ticking and wadding.

Each square explores what sleep means in prison. For some convicts, it means psychological escape, for others an anguished re-treading of all they most regret.

In the often noisy, hot and cramped environment of jail, sleep attains new importance that is only strengthened by the difficulty of achieving it.

Dreams of family.

Each quilted square, printed in full colour, fills one page so that readers can see the outstanding craftsmanship required (often the fruit of weeks of patient dedication) and realise the meaning conveyed by the artwork.

Tracy Chevalier developed an interest in quilting when researching for her novel The Last Runaway. It is set in the mid-19th century, when her heroine, a young English Quaker takes ship to a new life in Ohio. Quilting was a big pastime in that era on both sides of the Atlantic. The project turned the American-British novelist, who often identifies with her characters, into a committed quilter.

Tracy has written nine novels and edited two short story collections. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5m copies and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

A plea in stitch.

After The Last Runaway was published in 2013, she was invited to curate a quilt show in London which she called What We Do in Bed. At the same time, she was contacted by Fine Cell Work to 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 asking them to express their feelings about sleep, in images or words or both.

Fine Cell Work runs rehabilitation projects in 30 prisons, training men and women in paid, skilled, creative needlework, undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells, to encourage hope, discipline and self-belief.

The prisoners responded with frankness as they wove their inner thoughts into their handwork. The patch motifs range from insomnia to sleep as freedom, to counting not sheep, but elephants. In some, isolation and stress make their presence felt, in others a sense of humour.

The book includes an essay by the author, an introduction by Katy Emck, director of Fine Cell Work, and quotations from the embroiderer-prisoners.

Yearning for freedom.

“Many inmates suffer from low self-esteem,” says Tracy. “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.”

She said that prisoners might 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.

One prisoner says: “I have always suffered with insomnia and often had to resort to using an eye mask.” The sleeping woman in his composition 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.”

Another is quoted as saying: “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 a close friend.

Tracy Chevalier. All pictures credit Heini Schneebeli.

“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.”

A high security inmate said: “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.”

Lady Anne Tree, founder of Fine Cell Work, said: “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.”

Prison officers took an interest, too. One, at Wandsworth, said: “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.”

Tracy Chevalier’s quilting enthusiasm was to the fore when she took a lead in celebrations in 2016 of the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. The events included an exhibition at the Bankfield Museum in Halifax which featured a collection of miniature quilts made by Yorkshire quilters responding to a line (“a certain little drawer, full of splendid shreds of silk and satin”) from the novel Jane Eyre, alongside a patchwork quilt made by the Brontë sisters.

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

The Sleep Quilt, a collaboration between Tracy Chevalier and charity ‘Fine Cell Work’ is published by Pallas Athene Books at £14.99. ISBN: 978 1 84368 146 5. Details at and

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