The new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Quilts: 1730-2010, is a big hit, with 8,000 advance tickets sold, and patchwork enthusiasts arriving from America, Australia and Japan. Visitors have especially praised one particular quilt, made by prisoners from Wandsworth Prison. Commissioned by the museum, it's covered in alternately poignant and amusing slogans, like "I miss my family" and "I didn't do it guv, honest". The quilters work in collaboration with Fine Cell Work, a company that teaches needlework to male prisoners – very soothing to the savage male breast. It's likely the V&A show will lead to a rush of further commissions from convicts. But what will the practitioners say about it?
The scene is the Maximum Security wing of HMP Wandsworth one morning. In the Association Room, a quilting bee is in progress. Twelve prisoners sit around a table, sewing.
Prisoner 449376 Arnold "Crusher" Logan: I'm bleedin' sick of snowflakes. Anyone else wanna do snowflakes? Fifteen hundred stitches, they are, each one. I'm cream crackered. I wanna do swans. Swans is easy peasy. Anyone wanna swap swans?
Prisoner 221879 Patrick "Muscles" Maguire: Don't be lookin' at me, begob. I'm up to me bollox here doing the cross stitch, and 'tis fierce complicated.
Prisoner 947301 Charles "The Terminator" Higgs: I can't get these 'ere cherubs right. I bin sewing the mouths this way an' that way, and I can't get the expressions to come right. All me cherubs look like they're tellin' someone to eff off.
Prisoner 390265 Gideon "The Prof" Grayling: Don't worry, Charles. The punters will love them. They'll show them to friends in Islington. "Aren't they exquisite?" they'll say. "Made by this little man who's doing 10 years in Wandsworth for armed robbery."
Higgs: I was not armed. I was just checking the mechanism on this toy Uzi wot I'd bought for me grandson.
Grayling: I always love that line. You must put it onto the next quilt.
Maguire: Next time, lads, can we not try something different? Could we not give embroidery a lash?
Logan: I don't fancy it. They got me doin' laid-work and couching in Parkhurst a year ago. Fackin' waste of time. For me it missed the essential subtlety of stitchcraft.
Maguire: You eejit. Isn't it better working with textile fabric than shovin' a needle into bits o' cotton? If you'd any feeling for texture...
Logan: Don't you try and lecture me about bleedin' texture, you Paddy philistine.
Maguire: Shut your gob, you jumped-up seamstress.
Prison Warder 3392 Albert "Bastard" Baker: Lads, lads. Calm down. Everyone back to the quilt.
Prisoner 190768 Daniel "Dingbat" Hobbs: Look, are people really gonna buy this quilt? Why don't they just go to Asda and buy themselves a duvet? Why would they want this tapestry thing, with little squares and Crusher's snowflakes and Charlie's cherubs all over 'em?
Grayling: Are you kidding? People love the idea of great beefy violent criminals doing something cool and creative and rather feminine, and they'll pay a lot for it. It's a popular trend.
Higgs: Too bloody popular. Every other prison's trying to get in on the act.
Higgs: I hear Maximum Security at the Scrubs are goin' big on crocheted birth shawls for an exhibition at the Hayward.
Higgs: Gnasher in D Wing told me that Belmarsh are planning a major push on broderie anglaise, to go on show at the Courtauld.
Higgs: And down at Pentonville, they're working on ornamental lacework, hopin' for a BBC4 series, co-hosted by Alan Yentob and Mick "Meat-axe" McGregor.
Higgs: Of course, it could all be a lot of blather.
Logan (emotionally): I can't stay in here any longer. I'm wasting my life. It's like the scales 'ave fallen from me eyes. I need to get out an' find a job in Chelsea, designin' curtains for Tricia Guild.
Maguire (dreamily): Begob I'm a changed man too. All I want now is to see my embroidery featured on a spread in World of Interiors...
Higgs (sotto voce): If you're planning to escape, you'll need a long rope. Or failing that, a really, really long quilt ...Reuse content