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January 2018

In 2013 the author Tracy Chevalier published a novel called The Last Runaway. Set in the 1850s, it tells the story of a young Quaker girl who leaves Dorset for America with her sister.  During the hazardous journey her sister dies, leaving Honor to make her own way in an unknown country.  One theme of the book is the underground railway which helped slaves to escape to freedom.  Another theme is quilting which was such a feature of American domestic life.

In order to immerse herself in her book’s subject matter, Tracy Chevalier taught herself to quilt and soon discovered a passion for sewing.  She went on to curate a quilt show in Bexleyheath and, as a result of that show, was contacted by the charity Fine Cell Work which teaches needlework to prisoners in UK prisons.  They invited Tracy to speak about her book and her quilts, and this led to 63 prisoners from Wandsworth prison working with her to design and make a quilt with the theme of sleep, each creating a ten-inch square for the finished quilt.

In an article in The Guardian newspaper in October Tracey describes how the project turned out to be more therapeutic than she had first imagined: 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.” *

The finished quilt represents every possible emotion, together with the hopes, fears and dreams of those who created it.  A book called ‘The Sleep Quilt’** has now been published, funded by many individuals who believed in the value of the project.  It contains images of the squares and the words of those who sewed them.

We often think about learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby at the start of the year.  Tracey Chevalier did, discovering something hugely pleasurable and rewarding for herself, which also turned out to bring help and new life to those who needed it most.


* The Guardian, 18.10.17

** The Sleep Quilt by Tracey Chevalier and Katy Emck, published by Pallas Athene, Oct 2017

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