Kirstine has been with Fine Cell Work for over four years. She is a former teacher and an experienced textile artist in her own right. She has also been mentoring a talented young stitcher at Cornton Vale as part of an FCW apprenticeship supported by the Prince’s Trust. Here, Kirstine explains why she enjoys volunteering with FCW and why the work is so important for the women at Cornton Vale.
I have always enjoyed being with people and contributing to the work of organisations of which I am a member. So it seemed natural on retiring from teaching to look for ways of continuing to practice the craft I love so much and to encourage others to feel the same. When members of my Embroiderers’ Guild who were already volunteers at Cornton Vale needed another pair of hands, I was really pleased to be of help. I had also recently moved to an area new to me so it was a chance to make new friends.
Being a volunteer at Cornton Vale I find the officers treat me with respect and genuinely appreciate the benefits to the prisoners that Fine Cell Work gives. For the girls, working on their embroidery has a calming effect and the concentration needed means many hours pass unnoticed. Considering how many hours prisoners can spend unoccupied, this is a boon. The pride in completing a piece of work to the high standard required by FCW is noticeable when the girls return their finished work.
Many of them enjoy the embroidery for its own sake, but the money they earn can be a life saver for those who get no financial help from family. Some say that they are able to buy small birthday gifts for their children; an important part of family life most of us take for granted. And a degree of financial independence means they can buy essential personal items. Just because these women are in prison does not mean they should lose self esteem.
Working as a mentor on the Prince’s Trust apprenticeship with Angela is a privilege for me. I have known Angela for most of the time I have been a volunteer at the prison so we are at ease with each other, which we both feel is important in the mentor/student relationship. We meet one afternoon a month to work on design and technique, which she is developing into her own design inspired by her love of gardens.
As part of the mentoring process I have introduced Angela to the work of professional textile artists, which helps stimulate the imagination and limit the sense of isolation. It has been a revelation to Angela just to see what is out there in the real world. Students can normally exchange ideas and discuss their work; Angela is learning to make decisions without that stimulus. She is keeping a sketch book with samples of drawing, collage, dyeing and stitching techniques. She also keeps a personal diary of her progress and thoughts on the apprenticeship and how it is affecting her outlook on life. Up until now she has been working on stitching other people’s designs. She is now imaginatively planning her own.
From being initially unsure of what seemed an unknown quantity, I can now truthfully say that the experience of volunteering at Cornton Vale has made me think about prison, what it must be like to be in prison and about volunteering generally as a positive.
Working with the girls who come to learn embroidery shows how developing a skill can bring changes in personality. They concentrate on learning the stitches and persevere with practice pieces until they realise that they can achieve something to be proud of. I imagine that this is something they have never been allowed to do. I have become aware of how lucky I am to have come from a loving, happy and safe family background. Many of the girls have not been so lucky.