“Turn that bloody torch off. I only get two hours”, is stitched into one patch of The Sleep Quilt, a project led by novelist Tracey Chevalier. She explains; “The prisoner is high risk and on suicide watch, so he is woken every two hours to make sure he’s still alive. It’s been happening for 24 years for this prisoner – it’s horrifying. For him, sleep is something he craves, but it’s a horrible experience.”
Chevalier, author of novels such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, worked with 63 inmates in Wandsworth prison to create a quilt made up of stitched patches. She discovered a love for quilting while researching her novel The Last Runaway - “my heroine was a quilter…” She went on to curate a quilt exhibition show at Danson House in London 2013 on the theme ‘Things we do in bed’. It was split into the themes of birth, sleep, sex, illness and death. Working with the charity Fine Cell Work, which teaches needlework to prisoners and pays them for the work they do, Chevalier asked the Wandsworth inmates to design a quilt made of 10-inch squares depicting individual responses to ‘sleep’.
“The need for sleep is universal and, I assumed, a kind of comfort in prison,” Chevalier writes in an introduction to the resulting book, The Sleep Quilt. She says that the project “became much more therapeutic than I’d thought – things came out, emotions came out. Sleep is quite contentious in prisons, and I hadn’t known that. But when we’re going to sleep, it’s often the time we think the most. For prisoners, things have gone wrong for them in their lives and that’s the time it comes out. That definitely came through in the quilt.”
“It sounds crazy to say that sewing can help people, but it is actually very therapeutic and calming,” says Chevalier. “It seems so unlikely, that sewing would unlock something, but it does.”