‘Some Strange Comfort’: the 2012 Holloway Quilt

Quilting points display the impact community projects can have

In the summer of 2012 the country celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and temperatures soared just in time for us to bask in the sunshine and glory of the Olympics. For those few months the entire country tingled with national pride – or so every newspaper in the country would have you believe. But behind a very large wall there were hundreds of women completely excluded from this experience.

Holloway Prison was the largest women’s prison in Europe until its closure in 2016. Rebuilt between 1971 – 1985, the architecture deliberately gave rise to the rumour ‘this used to be a mental hospital’ which was of course, untrue. Strangely garish pastel walls created a cheerful bleakness in which the bedsheets and curtains colluded. It was the strangest mix of comfort and control.

It was in these surroundings that myself and two other colleagues were given permission to run a series of workshops to produce an enormous quilt commemorating the year 2012. As trusted members of the Education Department, we were given access to the women on weekends and knowing the prison rules meant that we anticipated problems: no scissors allowed and needles had to be counted out and in; we had to ensure that we looked after the women both emotionally and physically. We also needed fabric – stacks of it! – so we asked the officers to donate their old uniform; “we’d love you to take off your clothes for us!” we joked – and they did. Piles of black and white fabric poured in. I went down to the laundry one day to see what I could get hold of. The laundry officer handed me a swathe of the sickly pastel bedsheets and dreary curtains that were worn and damaged, although she passed over those that were burned or bloodstained. Then one day an officer said that I’d had a delivery (unusual in itself as sometimes I could barely get pens and paper to run an English class). I went to the office and was greeted by a massive trolley full of boxes of fabric – to this day I have no idea who donated it.

The Holloway Brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, 1909

The design of the quilt was inspired by ‘The Holloway Brooch’, the brooch given to suffragettes for enduring hunger strike. The quilt is dominated by a large portcullis which frames 96 white squares each representing a woman’s ‘voice’. Within these squares the colour scheme is green, white and purple. Outside of the portcullis is a row of bricks made largely from the curtains and bedsheets salvaged from the prison’s laundry. A thick black edge of officers’ trousers offsets the brightly coloured words “LOVE, SEX, CAKE, MONEY” and “FAMILY, FRIENDS, RESPECT” – representing the women’s desires for the future.

Each weekend we would take the project to a different wing. We started off talking about quilts in history, how they could carry messages far beyond a time and place. Every woman was given a white square of fabric (usually an officer’s shirt) and by the end of the workshop, through our games and exercises, each woman had come up with a word or phrase that meant something to her. Sometimes it was embroidered by another woman (usually a ‘lifer’ with a much longer sentence) adding yet another layer to it.

The 2012 Holloway Quilt

I remember one particular workshop attended by a Roma woman who could not speak English. It was difficult for her to participate as she was not fully literate in her first language, or English,  but then another woman began communicating with her and scribing for her on a small paper square that we had given them to practice on. The women filled the square with tiny writing. We would never get all of these words on to the square so I asked them to read it to me. It was a stream of consciousness expressing how terrible and desperate the woman felt being in prison, it was hard to fully understand and then she spoke the last three words: ‘hope dies last’. It was so simple, so beautiful and became one of our most talked about squares, occupying pride of place as the final square.

Close-up of a square from the Holloway Quilt

Some women wrote just one word ‘HELP’ or ‘Ashamed’; some wrote very matter of fact statements which were later embroidered with silver thread, such as ‘I found pills and ate them’. Women on the mother and baby unit used their babies hands and feet to make prints on the squares. Others were rebellious ‘Contained but never controlled’, ‘Don’t judge me”. Once it was completed, it toured the wings for everybody to see the women’s work. It was accompanied by some scraps of paper,  a ‘visitor’s book’ for the women to express their feelings about it. The women wrote ‘I hope judges start seeing us as human beings’, ‘it has completely taken my breath away’, ‘nice to hear all our voices’ and ‘propa words by propa people!’

A square created by a woman in the mother and baby unit

When Holloway Prison’s closure was unexpectedly announced in 2015 the quilt became an even more poignant piece of history. Debate raged over what the site should be used for and the feminist activists, ‘Sisters Uncut’ briefly occupied a building within its grounds. It was at this point that the quilt was hung in parliament in conjunction with ‘Women in Prison’ in the hope that it might raise awareness about the legacy of the site and that lawmakers might be moved. In 2017 the ‘Holloway Quilt’ was finally handed over to the Museum of London and was displayed as part of the ‘Votes for Women’ exhibition.

It is now 8 years since the quilt was made and the site where Holloway Prison still stands has been empty and purposeless for half a decade. A proposed ‘Women’s Building’ (as it is vaguely called in its current incarnation) will sit among 1000 new flats of which only 60% will be ‘genuinely affordable’ according to the Mayor of London. Moreover, should a woman commit a crime in London today, she will end up serving a custodial sentence many miles from her family home, making contact even more difficult. The unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves today will be disproportionately affecting women in prison. Supplies will be short, visits will have stopped, all communication with the outside world will be affected. 

Words: Joanna Thompson

About: Jo Thompson has been working in education for 13 years in some of the most interesting places. She is a keen gardener, writer, seamstress and genealogist. She is also one third of ‘BirdWord’ the collective responsible for ‘The 2012 Holloway Quilt”. Find her on twitter @ldngenie  

Support the work of Women in Prison, a national charity supporting woman affected by the criminal justice system and campaigning to end the harm of prison to women and their families, here.