WHEN textile artist Kate Jackson offered to help some mums patch together a quilt for their children’s head teacher, she never thought it would land her in prison. But soon afterwards she found herself behind bars – and loving every minute of it.
“Whitfield School’s headmistress was leaving and all the mums got together and decided they would make her a special present,” Kate recalled.
“They got all the squares together, but couldn’t decide how to make them into a quilt. So they brought them to me. I knew some of the mums through workshops I ran in the village and I said, ‘either give them to me and I will finish them or you can come every Wednesday evening and you can finish them’. I wanted them to choose the second option and was pleased when they did.”
The quilt was duly sewn, friendships were forged over needle and thread accompanied by copious cuppas and the retiring head, Liz Baker was suitably delighted with her gift.
It was during this kitchen table creativity that one of the mums involved, Alison Redshaw-Boxwell, approached Kate to ask whether she’d ever considered working inside prisons.
“She said: ‘I see what you’re doing here – that this is a social event for these mums as well as a quilt; that this is cleverer than just making something’. She understood that when you’ve finished, you have got more than just the product.”
A retired midwife and mum of three, Kate only began quilting a few years ago, but has already had exhibitions and a celebrity commission. Her home near Langley is brimful of beautiful cloths of every hue and she likes to listen to music or have films on in the background while she stitches away.
One heirloom piece was created whilst Kate immersed herself in the solo albums of Dire Straits frontman, Mark Knopfler, online videos of the band and even a live concert. And when the story of the quilt got back to the guitar superhero he was so impressed he decided to buy it.
Alison Redshaw-Boxwell, who lives in nearby Allendale, is the founder of Dilly Arts, an arts development company that pioneers projects in prisons. She immediately spotted the potential in textile art for women inmates and secured funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Awards for All to establish the ‘HMP YOI Low Newton Family Quilting Project’.
Kate’s brief was to help female prisoners at the Durham jail design and create their own bespoke quilts during a 12-week course which they could send home to their children.
But before being allowed in, Kate had to undergo training that almost put her off before she’d even begun. The induction was carried out at high security jail, HMP Frankland; the UK’s largest category A prison.
“It totally, totally freaked me out,” Kate laughs. “I got the same induction as prison officers receive, so it was topics like ‘what to do if I’m taken hostage’ and ‘how to deal with terrorists’.
“Every now and then I would say: ‘Are any of these people going to be allocated to the quilting course?’ and they’d say, no. But by the end of the week I thought, ‘what am I thinking of’? “After the induction I thought I was going to be held at knife point every minute of the day but of course it wasn’t like that at all. In fact I sometimes forgot I was in a prison.”
Kate was allocated eight women for her course. “The criteria were that they should have children under 18. No previous skills were required but there should be a little bit of motivation. I know they selected well because the people who came were incredibly motivated, because we were making quilts to give to their children and they had never been able to give their kids gifts.”
Although all these women were expected to be released within five years, Kate did work with several long-term inmates as well, some of whom were serving sentences for more serious crimes.
She was first introduced to the four ‘Sewing Sisters’ because they used the room containing the sewing machines. “When I first encountered them they were making curtains out of this horrible plastic fire retardant material for all the prisons in the country. It was one step up from sewing mail bags.”
To Kate, this was anathema as her work is all about pretty, tactile, colourful cloth. Indeed Kate can be credited with introducing liberty into Low Newton – the Liberty of London fabric that is.
It was inevitable that the ‘Sewing Sisters’ would want to join in the quilting. So as well as making up kits for each of the eight women on her course, Kate also gave a separate kit to the ‘sisters’ to create a joint quilt.
“They weren’t allowed to make presents to bring to their children because they weren’t in that category of prisoner,” Kate said. “But they could enter a national competition called the Koestler Awards which celebrate art in prisons. Low Newton had never entered anything in the textile category before so these four ‘Sewing Sisters’ worked alongside us and I would talk to them about how things were coming along.”
Obviously, the inmates weren’t able to accompany her on fabric finding trips so to begin with she worked from a shopping list. “I sent in a questionnaire and said tell me your two favourite colours and whether you like bold, pastel or floral. I got back just their initials and their fabric choices. “Then me and my 90-year-old mum cut all this fabric up.”
Kate made up a sample seven by seven square quilt to inspire the women and took it in. “The idea was there would be 49 squares and they could do pretty much anything they liked with them. When I got it out and gave them the kits, they said, ‘we can’t make that!’
“I said, ‘you might not think you can, but you actually can’. And that’s why it was such a massive success because they bloody well did!”
Each week, Kate would come away with a new list of requests – authentic Batman logos; tractors; dinosaurs and football motifs for example. It’s clear, examining pictures of the finished quilts, just how much love and care was stitched into every square.
Some inmates sent heartfelt appliqued messages to their children on the other side of the prison walls and some advice that the mother couldn’t be there to give. ‘Break the chain’ reads one; ‘Sweet Dreams’ says another.
As Kate observes: “These women were able to give something to their children to watch telly under that also said, ‘I know I am in here and I have done terrible things but I love you and you are wrapped up in a little bit of me’.”
“I’m not saying they are all angels – they are not. They are in the right place, but it’s unimaginable to think we should release them without giving them some sort of leg up.”
For Kate, the finished quilts made all her efforts worthwhile. For example, each time she visited she had to present her passport and be finger-printed and searched. “There’s a massive drugs problem in prisons and who knows what I have got in my little soft boxes?,” Kate laughs, pointing to one of her little quilted cube containers.
“Each week I had to give them my ‘gate list’ and it would freak them out because they didn’t know what the things were. The guard would say, ‘It says you have got a Sizzix die cutter. What’s that?’”
Once inside the sewing room the door was locked and it was just Kate and the Sewing Sisters’ prison officer. “No one comes in or goes out,” Kate says.
“We got round the equipment limitations. I took in eight sewing needles and they had to exchange the key fob to their cell for a needle and didn’t get that back unless I got the needle back. There was great co-operation. No one was saying, ‘can I have the scissors back? The security measures become normal. If they broke the sewing machine needle, no one could leave until we found both parts. The women understood this and knew that’s what we had to do.”
Kate says the women’s work far exceeded her expectations. The first week they were saying, ‘can you thread my needle for me miss?’ and I said, ‘I will do this one but you have to do the next’.
“There turned out to be some real skill in that room. We arranged for them on a family day to give their quilts to their children, but one woman couldn’t wait until the next one so they arranged to have it posted out.”
And what of the ‘Sewing Sisters’? Well, they discovered half way through their quilt making that the competition demanded a ‘theme’ of which they’d been unaware.
“They had divided the squares up and had each represented their own prison experiences. Half way through they discovered ‘Journey’ was the theme but what I loved was that they had this brilliant idea of cutting out footprints and had them marching across the quilt.”
Lo and behold they went on to win a Platinum Award, the highest honour in the Koestler Trust Awards which are judged by professional artists.
Kate’s course at the start of 2015 was so successful, she was invited back last autumn to deliver another, this time funded by the prison and geared towards making the sewing room self sufficient.
The ‘Sewing Sisters’ swelled from four to ten and the inmates involved began selling cushions, soft boxes, make-up bags and bunting to prison officers and fellow inmates.
“They are looking at ways to make these women employable,” Kate says. ”We can’t just chuck them out of prison having spent 20 years doing nothing. I’m not saying they are all angels – they are not. They are in the right place, but it’s unimaginable to think we should release them without giving them some sort of leg up.”
Kate really struck up a bond with her pupils and was presented with a ‘Sewing Sisters’ mug. “I’m an honorary Sister,” she says. “The thing that makes me really sad though is that their mugs are plastic whilst mine is pot.”
Kate would love to secure more funding to pursue her prison work, but in the meantime, look out for her patchworked map of the British Isles in Liberty’s 140th anniversary book.
“I hashtagged Liberty on my instagram account and they got back to me and said can we use a copy of this in our book? It’s thrilling because I have always loved their prints.”