Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Prisoners of Jail, Prisoners of Life

The Rajah Quilt, a 2815-piece quilt made in 1841 by female prisoners en route via ship from England to Australia
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about fabric thieves, prisons, and a prisoner who quilts.

Well, it turns out I could have written a book. That blog entry triggered emails from quilters who described prison quilting projects across the US and elsewhere, today and in history. I was very surprised to learn that hundreds of quilts are being created in prisons every year.

I learned that prisoners of jail make quilts for the same reasons that all of us prisoners of life make quilts - for personal expression and healing, as gifts for loved ones and needy people, to get into the "zone" of intense focus on an enthralling task, which helps pass the time during long prison sentences. (Those of us not in prison must also pass the time during our hopefully long life sentences.) 

What's remarkable is that quilting programs can only exist when brave and compassionate quilters overcome all kinds of barriers - physical and mental - to enter a prison to teach. Here are some tips from a remarkable 'how to' document put out by the Coffee Creek Quilters of Oregon, who for ten years have run a successful prison quilting project:

  • Don't wear an underwire bra. All metal objects are prohibited, except that you may carry one key, your car key. (Purses and everything else can be locked in your car.)
  • Don't wear jeans, blue pants, and/or a lime green shirt (those are the prisoner inmate clothes colors at their facility.)
  • Before class starts, carefully count out the number of straight pins and safety pins each prisoner receives (40 straight pins is suggested). No one leaves the classroom until every single pin is accounted for.
  • Wear a pouch containing rotary cutter blades, machine and hand sewing needles. If a student borrows one, say a hand-sewing needle, her identification badge is put into the pouch until the needle is returned. 
On top of all that, the volunteer should have a non-judgmental attitude, and not share personal details about her life. And more. (Find the entire PDF document by pasting this into your browser window:  http://coffeecreekquilters.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Coffee_Creek_Quilters_Guide.pdf .)

In short, volunteering in a prison is heroic, and there are many heroes out there. 
Here's a quick summary of six projects I learned about: 

1. The Columbia Fiber Arts Guild's program at the women's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon. (They published the guidelines above.) Twenty volunteers teach four quilting classes a week to inmates nearing their release date. Some 300 prisoners have participated in the ten-year-old program that inmates describe as life-changing. Prison recidivism rate among the finishers is very low. More than 700 quilts have been made for hospitals, terminally-ill patients, nursing homes, low-income medical centers, and other charities. Each student is also able to make one personal quilt for herself or for a loved one. The program has received a grant from IBM. More information here and here

2. Fine Cell Work. British art quilter Margaret Cooler wrote from the UK, to tell me about this program, founded in 1997. It now involves 60 volunteers, working in 29 prisons, with male and female prisoners. Four hundred prisoners do needlepoint and quilting, and in some cases, are paid for their work. The needlework is "undertaken  in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem." Moving prisoner testimonials are here.  

3. Beyond the Barrier. Quilters Karen Musgrave and Lisa Quintana pointed me to a recent art quilting project at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. The program was launched in 2008 by renowned quilter Vikki Pignatelli and a prison chaplain.  The prisoners made art quilts;  fascinating, heartbreaking self-expression,working through grief, confusion, and tragic personal history. Results are here and here, and there's more about the project from Karen, who interviewed seven of the participants, ("I cried during almost all of the interviews"), here. Interviews are posted at the Alliance for American Quilts, hereThe prisoners' quilts were included in Pignatelli's famed Sacred Threads exhibition  in 2009. Quilting still goes on at the prison - paid work for making charity quilts - but unfortunately, the art quilt project is over. Karen is hoping to revive it. "I am convinced that having these kinds of projects in prisons changes lives," she says.

4. Purdy Project. Quilter Heidi Lund wrote to tell me that the Purdy Womens Correctional Facility in Gig Harbor, Washington has a large quilting group. "They make quilts for charities. The local guild (Kitsap Quilters) helped them purchase a long arm and supplies batting, fabric etc. They even do embroidery & screen printing." For more information, contact the Kitsap Quilters

5. Bedford Babies. Quilter Jeri Riggs, told me about the Village Squares Quilters of Scarsdale, N.Y., which runs the Bedford Babies project at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. New mothers with less serious crimes are taught by guild volunteers to make quilts for their babies. Many of the women become avid quilters and go on to create more complex quilts. Fabric must be precut by guild members, because scissors aren't permitted in the facility. Imprisoned mothers have made more than 1,000 quilts since 1997. More information here

6. Minnesota prison quilts. Inmates in three Minnesota prisons - including hardcore criminals and murderers - are avid charity quilters and knitters, according to this article in the Winona Daily News. The best part: "At least 15 hours in the weekly quilting circles are mandatory for St. Cloud prisoners under 18" !!!  (I could use 15 mandatory quilting hours!)

Several readers wrote to remind me of  two renowned prisoner quilts from Australian history. The best known is the Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by 180 female convicts from England travelling by ship to serve 7-year sentences in Hobart, Australia. (It's the quilt at the top of this post). The voyage took three months, and, on landing, the  pieced, embroidered, and appliqued coverlet was presented to the wife of the governor. A cross-stitched inscription on the bottom center of the quilt reads: 
"TO THE LADIES/of the /Convict ship Committee/This quilt worked by the convicts/of the the Ship Rajah during their voyage/to van Diemans Land is presented as a/testimony of the gratitude with which/they remember their exertions for their/welfare while in England and during/their passage and also as a proof that/they have not neglected the Ladies/kind admonitions of being industrious/June 1841"
Learn more about the Rajah quilt here. Singing quilter Cathy Miller of Vancouver, Canada, has composed a song about it and has a Facebook page for it

Then there are the Changi quilts were made by Australian women taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell to the Japanese in fall of 1942. A summary, pictures, and links to further information are here

Got more prison projects, past, present, or future? I'd love to hear about them!

[Note: My previous piece on prison quilts is here.]


  1. Fascinating stories! Thanks so much for making us aware of them, Cathy. If anything should make us count our blessings--this certainly should!
    Martha Ginn

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed them, Martha. I was amazed by how different each project is, as well as the heroism of the volunteers.

  3. Several members of Faithful Circle Quilters in Columbia, MD, have been working with the women at the Patuxent Institute for Women for many years. The women aren't allowed to keep the quilts they make. Once a year the women have a one-day quilt show before the quilts are given to charity.

    Barbara in MD

  4. Several members of Faithful Circle Quilters in Columbia, MD, have been working with the women at the Patuxent Institute for Women for many years. The women aren't allowed to keep the quilts they make. Once a year the women have a one-day quilt show before the quilts are given to charity.

    Barbara in MD

  5. Barbara, thanks for the addition to the list. Gosh, couldn't they keep ONE quilt?


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