“I’ve broken a needle,” says a woman with dyed blonde hair, peering at her sewing machine. “Jane, what do I do now?”
I help her to remove the broken needle, putting the pieces in my box of spares, and show how to insert a new one and re-thread the machine. She is new to the group but keen to make progress.
The workroom is full of subdued clatter and chatter, as the women sit at their machines, stand at the cutting table or manage quality control. Underneath the harsh lighting there is friendship and mutual respect.
I teach them garment making and currently they are sewing high quality clothes which are to be worn and sold at a fashion show. The women, whose ages range from 18 to over 50, mostly come from deprived backgrounds. Some spent their childhood in care homes and others lived on the streets. Born into poverty and neglected by their parents many became drug users. Here, over the past weeks they have had the opportunity to acquire a skill.
“Jane, I’ve got trouble easing the sleeve into the armhole,” calls Tracy, flicking back her long dark hair. I walk over and give her some guidance. “I hope all this sewing is going to mean I can get a job one day,” she says, resuming work. There are tattoos on her arms and I recall hearing that her parents abandoned her when she was 9.
“I’m dying for a smoke,” says Pat, but knows that’s not allowed in the workshop. She has a skin problem and is rather vague – probably a result of the drugs she used to take. Her scissors are attached to her machine on a chain to ensure they don’t go missing.
“I’d die for one of them cakes – like wot I see in them food adverts on TV,” groans Chloe, as she cuts a length of fabric. She’s tall, slim and pretty even in the baggy tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt she wears. Last week she surprised me by suddenly stopping work to announce to everyone, “D’ya know I could’ve bought a house to live in wiv wot I spent on heroin. How stupid is that?”
The charity project manager who is always present announces that the lesson is over. Amid noise and bustle, the women finish up and hand in their needles and pins. These are carefully counted and one is missing. It is a red topped pin and so we know it is Tracy who has ‘mislaid’ it. Reluctantly she ‘finds’ it and returns it to us with a lopsided grin. We know that in her room she would use the pin with mascara to tattoo her skin.
There is general movement but I remain until the offenders have all left. In the silence the only sound now is the clunking of steel doors closing. I am escorted back to the gate house and pass through 8 sets of locked doors. As I collect back my photo/ID card, a prison officer says goodbye.
Outside in the chill December daylight, I notice the grass and its greenness, contrasting with the stark grey I have escaped from. I set off, tingling with relief that I have my freedom and a warm loving home to go to.