From left: Stephen Jones, Regional Volunteer Coordinator at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, with six of the volunteers and Neil Wallace, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa. 

Women who had participated in the quilting group at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility before COVID-19 were excited to be back among the fabric, patterns and threads, and catch up with the volunteers. 

In contrast, newcomers to the prison’s first sewing, quilts and crafts session in 2023 kept their eyes cast down, unwilling to look at the volunteers. They just wanted to fade into the background and not be noticed, recalls volunteer Robyn Bickers. 

“The first thing we did was to get them to choose what they wanted to make, and the colours and fabric they wanted to use,” Robyn says. “Within a couple of weeks, they’d become active and engaged. It was like watching a flower unfold and begin to blossom.”

A wallhanging celebrating Matariki

One year later, women in the prison’s Sewing, Quilts and Crafts Programme have created the nine stars in the Matariki constellation. The completed wallhanging featuring the colourful stars was dedicated and hung on Thursday 27 June, in time for the national public holiday celebrating the Māori new year the following day. 

“The wāhine embraced the project and the work looks phenomenal,” Robyn says.

A registered nurse, she joined a local quilting group in 2017 when she retired. That’s where she met Mary Ann France, who told her about the volunteer Quilt-Stitch Group that had been teaching quilting to women in the prison since 2006. By early 2018, Robyn was hooked. 

“I absolutely love interacting with the wāhine and the volunteers. It’s a highlight of my week,” Robyn says. “I’ve been in service-driven occupations all my life so volunteering is an extension of that.

“It’s also about passing on skills to women who don’t have those skills but would like to learn.”

Broadening what the quilting group offers

Following the challenges of COVID-19 and the need for restricted access to prisons, Robyn talked to Stephen Jones, Regional Volunteer Co-ordinator at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, and decided to broaden what the group offered to include sewing and crafts, as well as quilting.

Asked what the women learn in the fortnightly sessions, Robyn says they absorb basic maths, literacy and communication skills as they are taught sewing and quilting techniques. For instance, at the beginning and end of every session the women have to count the pins and needles when they are given out and then returned.

“A lot of it is invisible learning,” she explains. “We make it a safe place for the wāhine and start with a karakia, which sets the tone and ground us all. They tell us that the sessions give them a sense of calm because it takes them to a different place. They’re concentrating on the task in hand: working a needle in and out of fabric can be quite meditative.”

Apart from learning a new skill they can use in their life after prison, the participants also develop other skills. For example:

  • patience and an understanding that it takes time to finish a project they can be proud of. This includes identifying and fixing mistakes.
  • self-confidence in making choices about colours and design
  • the ability to work respectfully and positively alongside the volunteers and other prisoner

“The volunteers are older and we all share different experiences and cultures," Robyn says. "But the participants respond well to us and there is mutual respect. We’re not there to judge the wāhine. We’re focused on the purpose of the day, which is to pass on our sewing, quilting and craft skills.”

Sense of pride in donating to community organisations and causes

The women also feel pride and a sense of satisfaction when their work – soft toys, quilts, crafts – is donated to community organisations and causes such as Starship Children’s Hospital, Mobility Dogs Charitable Trust, Pillars and Woven Earth.

Robyn says she has had to learn new ways of teaching a skill. “Nothing is ever seen as wrong and everything is a learning experience. We always try and let the women decide what they want because many have never had that choice in their lives.”

The group has eight volunteers who deliver the programme fortnightly over one morning. 

Roslyn Hefford, Principal Advisor, Ara Poutama Aotearoa, says Stephen Jones is one of 18 Volunteer Coordinators working in the country’s 18 prisons. These coordinators are responsible for engaging, training, administering and monitoring the volunteers.

“Volunteers are role models and teach valuable skills to prisoners. They also provide an important link to local communities,” Roslyn says. “Bringing people into the prison helps create a sense of normality, and encourages better behaviour and pro-social living.”

Women participating in the Sewing, Quilts and Crafts group talk about the group and the wallhanging they created depicting their interpretation of the Matariki cluster of nine stars. It was unveiled at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility on Thursday 27 June to welcome in the Māori New Year/Te Tau Hou Māori. Listen on RNZ to the participants talk about the project

 

 

 

 

Blossoming in the prison crafts programme

 

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