It’s funny where writing has led me. I’ve given tours in cemeteries and gone fossil hunting in the name of research. The Last Runaway drew me into the seemingly tame world of quilts. Not so tame, it turns out. Quilting has led me into a prison cell.

I am curating a quilt/art show for Danson House, a Georgian Mansion outside of London. It opens next month, when I will write more about it. One of the pieces for the exhibition is a quilt I commissioned from the UK charity Fine Cell Work, who teach prisoners how to sew, embroider, and do needlepoint. The prisoners make cushions, quilts and other handiwork, which are for sale on the FCW website. Have a look, it is a wonderful charity, and the merchandise is gorgeous.

The prisoners – mostly men, surprisingly – make a little money to save for their families or for when they get out. But even more importantly, the work gives them a sense of purpose and pride. I have visited prisons four times now, and each time I leave with a feeling of wonder at how stitching can have such a therapeutic effect.

The quilt for the show is now complete. It is called Sleep Quilt and is made up of squares prisoners designed exploring their conflicted feelings about sleep. Here it is:


You might think sleep would be a balm in prison, and certainly some prisoners use it to make their sentences pass more quickly. However, many more suffer from broken sleep or insomnia, for prison atmosphere is hot, stuffy, noisy, and tense. FCW stitchers made squares depicting their hopes, their sorrows, their guilt. Like this one, possibly the square that makes me the saddest.


Two weeks ago I went to prison to pick up the Sleep Quilt from “John,” who had hand quilted 10 hours a day for a month so that it would be ready for the show. This was in between bouts of pumping iron! It’s funny, you’d think he would be teased for doing something “feminine” like sewing, but actually he is well-respected on his wing for his work. I spent a little time in his cell, looking through photos of some of the beautiful quilts he’s made:

FCW-Brixton-visit-1-reduced                                     (this and subsequent prison photos taken by Isabella Panattoni from Fine Cell Work)


I gave John a little gift to thank him:



Then we had a kind of ceremonial handover of the Sleep Quilt:





I also met some of the other guys who had made squares for the quilt.


They were clearly really proud of it. FCW volunteers told me the project brought out a lot of issues, and had a strong impact on the prisoners, who don't get much chance to express feelings about things like sleep.

And me? I cried.