Quilt-Stitch volunteers Trisha Downes and Justine Jones

Quilts women can be proud of

25 March 2013
Most of the women have never used a needle and thread or sewing machine before joining the Quilt-Stitch Group and the weekly quilting classes, run by volunteers at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility.

A quilted carry bagWithin a few weeks, however, the prisoners have hand-sewed a quilted carry bag and hussif (personal sewing kit). Next up they make “angel quilts”, which are donated to Middlemore Hospital for sick or frail babies.

Finally, the women progress to making large, colourful quilts so they can give them as presents to mothers, partners, children, grandchildren and friends. In the process, they learn a range of skills such as design and use of colour, how to use a sewing machine, how to listen and be part of a group, and how to solve problems.

Something they can feel proud of

Above all, says Mary Ann France, team leader of the Quilt-Stitch Group, they learn to complete something they can feel proud of.

A quilt in progressThis month, Arts Access Aotearoa visited a Friday quilting session at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility and talked to the dozen women working on their various projects.

“I’m making a quilt for my moko,” one woman says. “I spent all of last weekend making half-square triangles and then sewing them into a pink and white quilt. I love making something to give to my family. I sewed from nine in the morning to 7.30 at night.”

Like the other women in the group, she is doing a range of classes such as typing, computer skills, engineering and an art class with The Learning Connexion.

Learning something new

One woman works fulltime in the kitchen where her job is to make vegetarian meals. She has a day off on Fridays and is able to attend the quilting group. “Quilting gives me some quiet time and I enjoy learning something new.”

A quilt in progressSeveral quilters mention that they find the quilting sessions calming. “Sitting down and doing something for families is very calming and it makes me feel close to them even though they’re far away,” one woman says. “Quilting gives us things to be proud of instead of things that are bad.”

Every Friday and Saturday morning, the volunteers run classes at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility. A brochure prepared for the prisoners reminds them that the volunteers are not employed by the Department of Corrections. “We are a group of quilters who choose to work with our Friday and Saturday Girls, and pass on our sewing skills and knowledge to you … We are not paid to be here with you.”

It’s a point the women seem to appreciate.

“The ladies are absolutely marvellous,” says one woman, who is sitting at a sewing machine. “They’re always very patient when they show us how to do things. I really appreciate how they give us their time week after week. I’ve learned so much.”

Volunteers' expectation of prisoners

The brochure also includes 12 things the volunteers expect from the participants, including the fact that they must attend the group each week unless there is a good reason why they can’t. If someone misses the class three times, another prisoner will take her place.

Every year, approximately 50 prisoners participate in the quilting classes. Mary Ann, a former secondary school teacher, says it’s vital that the classes are structured, and the volunteers are predictable, transparent and good role models for the women.

Quilt-Stitch Group with the new Bernina New Zealand sewing machine at the Big 'A' Awards 2012Last year, the Quilt-Stitch Group received Arts Access Aotearoa’s Big ‘A’ Prison Arts Community Award for its vision, and the commitment and teaching skills of the volunteers. As part of the award, the group was presented a new sewing machine sponsored by Bernina New Zealand.

In the store room next to the space where the quilting sessions are held, there are shelves of fabric and other materials such as buttons, thimbles and cross stitch work. These have all been donated by women around New Zealand, and by shops and clothing designers.

There are also seven old sewing machines, plus the new Bernina, in the store room. Only the women who have achieved a certificate of achievement are able to use the Bernina machine.

The Quilt-Stitch Group volunteers are among more than 500 volunteers who share their skills and knowledge with prisoners at Northland Region Corrections Facility, Auckland Prison and the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility.

Quilts to be proud of


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