Knit and Stitch volunteers Irene and Julie had their hands full as they donated over 650 handknitted items to Rāwhiti Community Corrections, made by prisoners at Christchurch Men’s Prison and Christchurch Women’s Prison.
Friends for more than 40 years, the duo have become well-loved visitors at the two prisons, acting as grandmother figures for the people they teach. They’ve been doing this aroha mahi (volunteer work) for almost four years, thanks to a friend at Christchurch’s Hope Church.
“Leslie donated some wool to the prison and found out they were looking for volunteers to teach knitting and crochet skills,” Julie says. “So one day, she turned round to us in church and said, ‘they’re needing volunteers at the Women’s Prison to teach knitting. You two will do it, won’t you?’”
“We didn’t even volunteer ourselves,” laughs Irene. “But it’s the best thing we’ve done.”
Over the years, they estimate they’ve helped prisoners create more than 2000 handknitted items, which have been donated to whānau and a range of charitable organisations. This includes a recent donation of 100 beanies to the organisation Drug-ARM.
Beyond giving back to the community, the two women have seen firsthand how learning these skills can have lifechanging benefits for people in prison.
“I remember one woman who wouldn’t let anyone touch or hug her,” says Irene. “I was the one to teach her how to crochet and – I’ll never forget this – at the end of the year before she was released, she gave me a big hug and said thank you. We touched something there with her.”
A sense of purpose, calm and normality
The pair have found that knitting and crocheting gives prisoners a sense of purpose, calm, and a place where they can regain a sense of normality behind the wire. “It also gives people a huge sense of achievement,” says Irene. “You see them go ‘Oh, I’ve made this. I can do things.’ It’s so important.”
People typically start by learning on a round loom, before moving on to knitting needles, where they make peggy squares and beanies. When they’ve got the knack of that, Irene and Julie provide them with photocopied patterns to create layettes (baby clothing sets), socks and toys.
It’s a true team effort to enable Knit and Stitch to occur at Christchurch Women’s Prison and Christchurch Men’s Prison. Corrections Officers working to ensure knitting needles and other tools can safely make their way through security while staff across the board encourage prisoners to take part and even donate wool for their use.
The duo can’t wait to get back into the prison space when COVID-19 restrictions ease but they’re also planning classes at Rāwhiti, with Regional Volunteer Coordinator Jen Hardy keen to grow volunteer opportunities in the Community Corrections’ space. This would see Irene and Julie teaching offenders skills like sewing buttons, thread and knitting, as part of the Work and Living Skills programme.
This partnership has kicked off with the donation of more than 650 knitted and crochet items, which Rāwhiti staff will be sorting into care packages for whānau and people in need who visit their site.
The Knit and Stitch programme is always in need of more wool, plastic needles and patterns (particularly children’s clothing and toys). If you’re keen to support this programme, items can be dropped off at Christchurch Men’s Prison or Rāwhiti Community Corrections. Please email Jen Hardy, Regional Volunteer Coordinator, to arrange a date and time to drop off items.