Tracy Chevalier and The Sleep Quilt

As teenagers, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I used to watch two hospital dramas if we happened to be in when they were on (although 'happening to be in' may understate how much we enjoyed those programmes at that point in our lives...ensuring that we had a family-sized bag of chocolate Minstrels for viewing and both leaping onto the sofa in time to hear the theme music is probably a more accurate description). One was a drama set in a casualty department and the other set on the wards of the same hospital. I tell you all this because, very occasionally, a character from one show would make a fleeting appearance in the other and we would feel curiously delighted to find the two worlds colliding!

Anyway, that's kind of what happened to me a few weeks ago (minus hospitals and chocolate, although with the addition of things that appeal to me far more twenty years later...), when I met with one of my favourite novelists, Tracy Chevalier, to talk about her forthcoming book with Fine Cell Work. The colliding being that I'd interviewed both Tracy and Fine Cell Work separately about different things last year and suddenly found myself with Tracy chatting about their joint project. (Those initial interviews are yet to be published and I don't want to duplicate anything here, so what follows is, to me, only half the story, but I'm not sure the page would be long enough to accommodate the whole story anyway)!

For those who haven't come across Fine Cell Work already, they're a wonderful charity whose volunteers teach prisoners to stitch and sew, enabling them to earn money by making things based on the charity's commercially-viable designs, which they collaborate on with interior designers, such as Kit Kemp and John Stefanidis. The finished hand-made cushions and quilts are of incredible quality and are sold by FCW to an appreciative (often high-profile) customer base. There are countless benefits from this scheme: prisoners who stitch are statistically calmer and less likely to get into fights; the long solitary prison hours are passed doing something productive; positive feedback from customers builds self-esteem; it allows them to offer some financial support to their family while they're inside and often when the stitcher emerges from prison they have the skills, enthusiasm and small nest-egg necessary to begin a new life, rather than returning to old habits.

Tracy's first meeting with Fine Cell Work was when they invited her to talk to some of their stitchers at Wandsworth Prison about a novel she'd written, where the central character is a quilt-maker. She said that on that first visit, despite her initial apprehension about entering a male prison, she actually felt relatively safe. Although most of the FCW stitchers are category A prisoners (high security), they value their time sewing so greatly that they are at pains not to jeopardise the privilege and tend to be respectful and eager to please. Tracy said that conversation with the assembled prisoners quickly felt curiously akin to that of any quilting group, where people are united by a shared enthusiasm for needle and thread. She said that the FCW stitchers were eager to share their own work with her and hungry for positive feedback. It was an experience that left her feeling she wanted to continue her connection with Fine Cell Work.

Around the same time as her visit to Wandsworth, Tracy was also invited to curate an exhibition of quilts at Danson House in Bexley Heath. She called that exhibition 'Things We Do in Bed' and chose to give each of the five rooms a theme - birth, sleep, sex, illness and death - to be explored through the medium of quilts. After her prison visit, she felt inspired to invite the Fine Cell Work stitchers to create a quilt for her show; she decided that the least controversial theme for that may be 'sleep'. What she discovered, was that sleep isn't as neutral a topic in prisons as she'd first imagined and the resulting quilt is as heavy with emotion as it is with stitches.

Through Fine Cell Work, prison stitchers were invited to create a patchwork square for the quilt, depicting what sleep meant to them. In eight prisons, a total of sixty-five prisoners brainstormed ideas and, if anyone lacked the artistic ability, collaborated on artwork to help each person successfully convey their feelings around sleep. The resulting quilt is a richly tapestried piece of wakefulness, dreams, insomnia, escapism, counted sheep, guilt, regret, sadness, vulnerability and, at times, hope.

Photo credit: Fine Cell Work
To give the Sleep Quilt a feeling of cohesion, dark blue sashing was placed between the blocks and the predominant colours used were white and blue. Additionally, Fine Cell Work decided that just one stitcher should do the hand-quilting to bind the layers of the quilt together - a 'burly Polish inmate in London's Brixton Prison who worked 10 hours a day for six weeks on it, in between bouts of weight-lifting' was chosen. When I saw the quilt, for all the beautiful blocks it contains, I found this hand-quilting equally captivating. The stitches are exquisitely even and puts my own hand-quilting to shame. As a quilt-maker, I think we're always left wanting to know the exact techniques used - in one place I could see the faintest blue line beneath the stitching, which I recognised as the distinctive ink of a wash-away quilt marker. I don't usually rule out my lines of stitching, tending to 'eyeball' it, so I may try this next time. Tracy pointed out the decisions the quilter had made: where to quilt around a picture or where to stop; whether to use navy or white thread. It's not until you begin to analyse it that you can see the sensitivity of the quilting decisions and appreciate that he somehow called it exactly right every time. It's a huge responsibility to make stitches on a block that someone else has pieced.

The blocks themselves are at times humorous and, at others, tear-inducing. Some tell a literal story of sleeping in prison - in one block, a vast torch light looms over a prison bed and the words 'Turn that bloody torch off' and 'I only get two hours' are written on the intricately thread-drawn brick wall above.

Some blocks convey dreams of home, a camper van, family or a partner. The quilt block below is the only one created by a female prisoner.

Here, a block shows a sleeping man, tears on his cheek and his face heavy with sadness, depicted in delicate blue floral's a surprising fabric choice that feels both brave and vulnerable.

Another densely-stitched block tells an autobiographical story, described in the accompanying words with startlingly frank self-awareness: 'The lower right figure represents past relationships, where a candle of enlightenment belatedly reveals my true nature' and 'the most prominent design on the left symbolises my daughter. I have never met her and she subsequently displays my burden of shame.' It is not an easy read.

The projects that the stitchers usually work on are patterns provided by FCW, so Tracy and some of the volunteers had felt apprehensive about whether working on such an emotive project may unleash feelings that were difficult for the prisoners to deal with, but she said that ultimately, the prisoners seemed to find it a positive experience. I wonder if exploring feelings through stitches may be easier than talking, as the soothing repetition of the work simultaneously offers its own balm to any turmoil the actual work may stir up.

The men collaborated on layout and Tracy pointed out to me how the four outer corners are weighted with darker-coloured blocks; the sheep blocks are evenly spaced to avoid ending up with a field's-worth clustered in one area; and the nine central squares have also been carefully placed in terms of colour value. Once the layout had been agreed, one prisoner was then tasked with sewing it all together, a privilege as well as a responsibility. Assigning duties like this was handled by Caroline Wilkinson, one of Fine Cell Works most active volunteers, who oversaw much of the quilt-making.

I asked Tracy whether she feels apprehensive when she commissions a quilt - it's something she's done several times, also commissioning quilts for her subsequent show celebrating Charlotte Bronte's bicentenary. She told me that in this case, when the initial squares were shared with her, she worried about whether the final piece would have enough impact, but like any quilt, it's often only once it's viewed as a whole that the individual components feel 'right' and she was delighted with the finished quilt. I also asked her about the experience of curating an exhibition. She said that she's learnt something each time she's done it - one thing being an acceptance that she won't always get viewers to do what she wants them to do! She explained that at the Things We Do in Bed exhibition, there was a brief and unmissable piece of writing, which, if read, would make sense of the whole exhibition for the visitor...and she watched as person after person walked straight past it. When I went to visit the Matisse in the Studio exhibition at the RA recently, I caught myself hungrily striding towards the paintings, only forcing myself to return to the introductory writing when Tracy's words rang in my ears and I imagined some poor curator watching on in horror. Although it was like a bit like sucking a sweet to appreciate it's flavour, when my instinct is to chew it briefly and then devour it almost whole, I feel I will probably always stop to read the introduction from now on!

The sleep quilt ended up being displayed alongside works by the likes of Grayson Perry and Sara Impey. It's yet another facet of Fine Cell Work's genius that through their relationship with Tracy, prisoners have been offered an opportunity like this. Although, in order to protect their privacy, their names aren't shared, the positive effects on one's self-esteem in taking part in such a high-profile project, when one's life to date may have lacked any kind of praise or affirmation, seem inestimable.

And now, a book, reincarnating the sleep quilt in paper-form - something I'm so delighted by, having missed the exhibition when it was on originally. It's a small, perfectly-formed book, ideal for gifting, self-gifting or coffee-tabling. The quilt blocks have been beautifully photographed and fill the pages, sometimes with a short explanation alongside elaborating on the meaning it holds for the maker. There's an introduction by Tracy, as well as Katy Emck, Fine Cell Work's Director. And at the end of the book, several pages of quotes from prison governors, FCW volunteers, and the inmates themselves, sharing the difference that Fine Cell Work and needlework has made to their lives.

If you'd like to support the production of the book, you can purchase it through the KickStarter, where you can also choose a handmade purse or cushion to go with it, if you'd like. Any surplus money raised will help finance Fine Cell Work's new hub, where ex-inmates will be able to find work and learn to re-integrate in society. If you'd prefer, there's also the more conventional Amazon route (although I think the charity would love it if you'd consider being part of their Kickstarter). It's a really beautiful book - I think anyone would love it and I'd wholeheartedly recommend buying a copy!

Tracy's actually holding two of the aforementioned prisoner-made cushions in this photo (she also showed me the loveliest side table, which was covered in the same colourful needlepoint, also made by FCW stitchers). Tracy explained that these cushions are often one of the first things prisoners will make when they finally reach the point of being skilled enough for Fine Cell Work to sell their stitching. Each little square in the cushion contains only two colours, so the stitchers are able to be fairly creative with less chance of a demoralising failure, because the duos of colour just always seem to work well together.

If subtle cushions are more your thing though, I am also swooning over these and have one of them on my Christmas wishlist (I wrote about a beautiful hotel where I'd stayed for my 40th birthday and it's owner and designer, Kit Kemp, has collaborated with Fine Cell Work to create this range of hand-finished cushions).

In the days before I met Tracy and was thinking about The Sleep Quilt, several things bobbled up in my mind. One was a book about sleep by Matthew Walker that I'd heard being discussed on Start the Week and read various articles about (do listen here, if you have the time and inclination). His book suggests that sleep deprivation impacts on virtually every aspect of our mental and physical health. An extreme example of this is that when the clocks go forward and we lose an hour's sleep, the rate of heart attacks increases by a staggering 24% in the days that follow. By contrast, when the clocks go back and we gain an hour of sleep, the rate of heart attack decreases by a similar amount (I share this news from the relative safety of the clocks having gone back just three days ago...)! Matthew's book sounds fascinating from a personal point of view, but I then started thinking about it in the context of the Sleep Quilt: for those who are potentially most in need of an environment that fosters mental stability, level emotions and resilience of spirit in order to make positive life changes, prisoners are thrown into a place that couldn't be more hostile to facilitating the kind of sleep that could make those things more attainable, with clanging doors, bright torch lights, pacing guards and potentially intimidating room mates. It seems just another of the many ways in which our current prison system seems set up solely to punish, eschewing the need to also rehabilitate. On the subject of room mates, I listened to a podcast a few months ago called Ear Hustle, which is recorded, under supervision, by prisoners in an American state prison. The first one, Cellies, gives a really interesting insight into how sharing a cell impacts on one's day-to-day experience of prison.

Finally, last year, I read about a government-led system in Brazilian prisons where inmates can reduce their sentences by up to 48 days per year, by reading books and then writing reports on them to demonstrate their comprehension of the text. The carefully curated reading list offers a range of literature, philosophy and Brazilian classics for different reading abilities and is labelled Redemption through Reading. When I think about how life-changing certain books have been in my own relatively sheltered life, it's not hard to imagine the possible impact they may have on a life that's gone awry, where exposure to thought-provoking literature may be an entirely new experience. Although the Brazilian prison environment is almost certainly more gruelling than our own, implementing systems like this seem a relatively low-cost way of bringing about small, positive changes. One of the teachers who works in a Brazilian prison says 'We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.'

Just before I left, Tracy indulged me with a show-and-tell of her work. You can see her beautiful baby quilt in the photo above on the left - all the squares were fussy-cut to create a whirligig of pattern. I also saw some glorious patchworks and even some of her very first piecing, all hand-sewn. This initial piecing actually set off an idea in my head that I'm hoping to try out at some point, so more on that when I eventually do!

Finally, because I know some long-time readers may be thinking it: how did I meet one of my favourite authors and retain the power of speech? As I stood on her doorstep, it did suddenly occur to me that I may indeed lose all my words and have to gather them up from the pavement. But talking about quilts together somehow very quickly made her seem more Kindred Spirit than Author God.

Florence x


  1. Ah, isn't Fine Cell Work such a wonderful organisation? I know they recently donated some work to the Quilts For Grenfell Tower appeal. Our prison system is generally so horrifying and projects like this really point the way to something better. I've been meaning to listen to Ear Hustle; if you haven't heard this episode of This American Life, do listen: The Brazilian reading programme sounds brilliant. Our govt actually banned prisoners from receiving books from friends and family a few years ago!! Thankfully the restrictions have been eased since. And OMG to the BST heart attack stats - surely a good argument for not adjusting the clocks, and for shortening the working day as well. Fascinating post all round, Florence! x

    1. Ooh, thanks for the link, Nina. I'm not sure I've heard that episode, so I'll go back and listen.

      I heard something about that, although only after the restrictions had been eased. It defies all logic, doesn't it - it doesn't feel humane to wilfully inflict that level of boredom on someone's daily existence.

      I hope you enjoy Ear Hustle.

  2. I enjoyed reading this so much - now off to purchase the book via Kickstarter - thank you for spreading the news about this wonderful book!

  3. Really interesting and thought provoking blog. I've just finished reading Why we sleep by Matthew Walker, a really interesting read

    1. I bought it as a gift for my mum and I'm hoping to borrow it back at some point soon! Did it prompt you to change your sleeping habits at all?

  4. Thank you for this detailed explanation Flossie.

  5. So interesting. Thankyou for sharing xx


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Florence x