Quilting, embroidery and jail are words not usually found in the same sentence.

Yet at Ngawha Prison, just east of Kaikohe, inmates are learning to sew and making quilts for charity. A few have mastered embroidery and one has became quite an expert in crochet scarves.

The idea is to give the inmates skills they can use once they are released, as well as keeping them usefully occupied while they're still inside.

Inmate Quinn (not his real name) had never used a sewing machine two months ago and started by making children's bookbags. He is now making quilts for children's hospital wards. Most of the stitching is done by machine but he does the embroidery, including his signature and cartoon figures, by hand.


"It's cool as. It's interesting to make a quilt, you're creating something. It feels good to make something for people who have nothing."

HANDIWORK: An inmate on Ngawha Prison's sewing programme shows off his needlework. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF
HANDIWORK: An inmate on Ngawha Prison's sewing programme shows off his needlework. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF

The young Northlander spends every weekday in the sewing room and plans to keep going until his release.

As well as quilts and beanies, inmate John (again not his real name) has just finished a backpack for his 15-year-old sister. At times he gets frustrated, "but when it's finished I feel proud, like I've achieved something".

Sewing instructor Joanne Hammerton said the programme was set up two years ago for industrial sewing.

Since she started in April the course had become more creative, with the prisoners typically making prisoner rain ponchos and bookbags for a children's charity in the morning, then quilts in the afternoon.

"When I first brought some quilts in they just laughed. But some of the stauncher ones gave it a try and the rest followed," she said.

Mrs Hammerton said sewing helped pass the time, gave the inmates a creative outlet and helped them relax. One told her he now understood why old ladies did it, because it had stopped him stressing about his release date.

Prisoners were interviewed and had to show good behaviour to get on to the course, which was limited to eight at a time. They had to win prison officers' trust because scissors and needles were involved. Some were incredibly skilful. One had used a needle for the first time four months ago and now outdid her in embroidery.


"He's a natural. To go from not knowing anything to working at this standard in a short time is exceptional," she said. Prisoners were often waiting outside the workshop in the morning and had to be ordered out in the afternoon.

"When I arrive at 8am and the boys are already knocking on the door. That proves they're keen."