THE first Henley Arts Trail venue up and running this year was number eight — the Lady Sew and Sew fabric warehouse.
Based in Farm Road, Henley, the retailer hosted an eagerly received talk by bestselling author Tracy Chevalier to mark the April 14 launch of the Fine Cell Work exhibition in association with the charity of the same name.
Founded by Lady Anne Tree in 1997, Fine Cell Work currently works with 29 British prisons, supporting more than 400 inmates in the production of exquisite quilts, needlepoint and embroidery.
The exhibition, which runs until Monday, features a selection of 20 such quilts — including the Wandsworth Prison Quilt originally commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Over the three days of the Henley Arts Trail itself, it will be joined by the 100 Quilts Exhibition showcasing quilts and textile art by local artists and Lady Sew and Sew customers.
As it turns out, American-born Tracy has been something of a quilting enthusiast herself since she began making them “as research” for her 2013 novel, The Last Runaway.
The following year she curated an exhibition at Danson House in Kent called Things We Do in Bed — during the preparations for which she commissioned what was to become the Sleep Quilt.
The joint creation of 60 men and women across nine prisons, the quilt consists of 63 squares chronicling the inmates’ diverse feelings about sleep.
Tracy’s involvement with Fine Cell Work began three years ago when someone at the charity read The Last Runaway and invited her to visit HMP Wandsworth and give a talk about her experience of quilting. It was an experience she says she found both enlightening and poignant.
“It’s very moving what happens, you know? You don’t know what it’s going to be like in a prison and then when you go and see these guys working on something and sometimes it’s the first time in their lives they’ve ever completed anything or made something of beauty. That has a real effect on self-esteem. It makes them feel worthy, worthwhile, and it makes them feel like they have something they can contribute to the world.”
The author of eight novels — the most recent of which, At the Edge of the Orchard, has just been published — Tracy remains perhaps best known for her second book, Girl With a Pearl Earring, which sold five million copies, was translated into 38 languages, and became a 2003 film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.
Ever the storyteller, Tracy seems to be drawn to the fact that quilting is something people put a lot of themselves into.
“Yes, I think so. Particularly with the Sleep Quilt we asked them to be personal — and for some I think that was quite painful because when you look at the quilt once you start noticing the details there’s an awful lot of sadness there, and sort of melancholy and guilt.
“I think I showed a couple of examples in my talk about the kind of thing the guys came up with. You know, some of them were more light-hearted or weren’t emotional, but a lot of it was.
“I think what surprised me so much was that I hadn’t expected there to be an emotional response to the idea of sleep. You can imagine an emotional response to illness or death, but not to sleep.
“And yet the idea of getting a good night’s sleep is important for humans — and I think for prisoners it’s particularly difficult to achieve, and that must weigh on them. So a lot of that came out in this project.”
On the opposite wall to the Sleep Quilt in the Lady Sew and Sew exhibition space is an equally striking work, the Cell Quilt. This depicts a standard two-man prison cell, viewed from above and meticulously to scale.
“It’s surprisingly small when you think about two people being in that space,” says Tracy. “I think it’s a really effective quilt to look and especially, you know, if they ever put it on the floor. You can’t step on it but you can actually see the size of it. It’s a very small space.”
Paired with the Sleep Quilt in particular, the two seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
“The Sleep Quilt came first but I think when they had the idea for the Cell Quilt it felt like it was a stroke of genius to do that,” adds Tracy.
“It’s very powerful because most of us have not been in prison. so we don’t know what it’s like. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s actually like and I think the Cell Quilt really gives you a good sense of it. Or at least one aspect of it.”
During her talk at Lady Sew and Sew, Tracy discussed the appeal that quilting continues to hold for her.
She said: “It calms me down and it also uses a completely different part of my brain from writing. I’m a very verbal person and this forces me into thinking in a different way. I really love it.”
For more on the exhibition, visit www.ladysewandsew.co.uk
or call (01491) 572528. Fine Cell Work’s website is at www.finecellwork.co.uk