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Life after makeright: the power of patchwork

‘Fidget Blanket’, 2018
‘Fidget Blanket’, 2018
‘Fidget Blanket’, 2018 Photo: Danni O’Malley for DACRC
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Published date
26 March 2018

Makeright is a ground-breaking design course for prison inmates, run by The Design Against Crime Research Centre at Central Saint Martins. The project is devised to break the cycle of repeat offending by equipping inmates with skills and thinking processes to help them find employment, or become self-employed, on release. The first Makeright course took place at HMP Thameside in October 2015. Over eight weeks, students designed and created bags with anti-theft components, which were then sold in Sue Ryder charity shops. Makeright is currently running at HMP Doncaster and in summer 2018 the resultant anti-theft bag designs, fabricated in donated lorry tarpaulin, will be on sale via the Abel & Cole website.

Just one year after volunteering on the Makeright project, MA Material Futures alum Zannah Cooper is now running a textiles programme at HMP Thameside. After their success with Makeright, Serco’s lead for prison industries Keith Jarvis set out to recruit new graduates, including Cooper, to initiate new making projects for the inmates. Cooper has designed a patchwork course, in which inmates produce ‘fidget blankets’ – small quilts which can help Alzheimer’s patients or children with autism. Lorraine Gamman, Director of Design Against Crime Research Centre spoke to Cooper about the impact Makeright has had on her plans for the future.

‘Fidget Blanket’, 2018 (Detail) Photo: Danni O’Malley for DACRC

Lorraine Gamman: Tell us about your current role and how this quilt project came about.

Zannah Cooper: I now work in a permanent job-share at HMP Thameside with Michelle Baranda who also completed MA Material Futures at Central Saint Martins and, like me, was a volunteer on the Makeright course. This is how we first went into the prison, and so were pleased that this volunteering led to a job offer.

Makeright is now running in HMP Doncaster because HMP Thameside is dealing primarily with short-term remand inmates. So I needed to invent shorter-run course activities for the Textiles programme and thought of getting the men involved in making patchwork quilts. My much-loved aunt, Caroline Wilkinson, is an avid quilter and used to take me to the V&A when I was little which I always found very inspiring. When I graduated from my BA, I interned for Fine Cell Work through my aunt, which is where my desire to work in prisons began, leading me to volunteer with Makeright. I’m now considering training to be an art therapist so the work volunteering, and subsequent paid work, has given me valuable experience.

What is the quilt project and what it is about?

At the moment our Textiles programme at HMP Thameside is making ‘fidget blankets’ which we call ‘sensory blankets’. We are keen to encourage making where inmates do something to get out of their own heads and create something both beautiful and useful – for dementia or Alzheimer’s sufferers or cancer patients who also find themselves in a difficult place. It is not art therapy and we are not therapists, but it is a design process which helps distract inmates from their own situation, to move them into different realms of thought by doing something pragmatic to help others. This is how Makeright was originally conceptualised. We are also making cot quilts with inmates and hope the Families First programme in the prison will support the project by giving the men who complete parenting classes a quilt for their new babies.

What is the background of this project, what led you to this design?

My MA research looked at how to improve well-being for patients awaiting treatment. People suffering with depression are often encouraged to volunteer or do something for others less fortunate. Inmates struggling with feelings of guilt and shame are going through something similar and can learn through making. Producing something useful for someone who is also in a difficult position, for charity, can build the inmates’ self-esteem. Michelle and I are now trying to develop this idea and are currently designing a programme which will use textiles to increase empathy and reduce violence.

I’ve found it an eye-opening and rewarding experience being in prison – both in terms of a greater awareness of social justice issues and the failures of the prison system. So often prison is a taboo subject and, as a society, we too-easily forget about inmates serving time. I think this is an issue we all need to engage with and take greater responsibility in.

Is it a not-for-profit activity?

Yes, it’s a not-for-profit activity. However, we have had individuals request ‘fidget blankets’ for their loved ones. The fabrics we use are all donated by local curtain manufacturer Sue Whimster, so it is financially viable, but I would like the inmates to earn some money for their work so we have to figure out how to do this. I know Makeright are also looking into setting up a charity to support the men with the profits received from their anti-theft bags.

How is it going with the men – do they enjoy the work?

It’s going really well with the guys, they are responding positively to the project theme, and as I saw with Makeright, they like having a sense of productivity and creativity while being able to give something back. They love the making process and using the sewing machines, we often need to encourage them to slow down as they rush ahead a lot.

How many have you made or do you aim to make each week?

So far we’ve made about 15 ‘fidget blankets’ in the studio. We have new inmates all the time and some are only with us temporarily so it’s a flexible environment. Our aim would be to produce between three and five a week.

Do you plan to develop the project?

Yes, we are planning for dementia patients, or their carers, to visit HMP Thameside so the inmates can meet their clientele and design bespoke blankets for them. We hope this relational aspect might increase the inmates’ sense of empathy. Also, a suggestion from an inmate about designing a blanket for his autistic child inspired us to make sensory, weighted blankets for autistic children.

And what about your future plans?

I plan to apply for a MA in Art Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths after gaining more experience working in prisons and also working with the elderly at charity Open Age, which enables anyone aged 50 or older to sustain their physical and mental fitness.

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