In her former life, Sue* would pass by sewing and fabric shops and look into the windows where she'd see immaculately stitched and colourful quilts; she'd linger a little longer and think how beautiful they were and how talented the people who made them were.

Now, at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri, she is among dozens of women learning those skills thanks to dedicated volunteers affectionately nicknamed "the prison nanas".

Led by Mary-Ann, a former high school science teacher, four or five volunteers - mainly former teachers, all talented quilters and sewers - spend Friday and Saturday mornings teaching prisoners how to quilt.

In the space of a few months, Sue has learned to make bags and her own quilted sewing kit (called a hussif) and graduated to more ambitious projects: a quilt for a relative's birthday; a Christmas stocking she intends to fill with gifts for her partner.


"I've gone from not knowing anything about this to being able to make a quilt," she says, "but it's easy when you have lovely ladies like this helping us out."

The prison's Quilt Stitch Group is one of the most popular classes women can sign up for and has a waiting list for its 30 lessons across 15 weeks. In 10 years of teaching at the prison, Mary-Ann says there have been only two inmates whom she asked to leave.

Most are keen to try something new, especially when it provides a creative outlet or hobby. She'd like to teach a master's class for women who successfully complete the 15 week course.

As soon as those words are out, one woman, Rose*, puts her hand in the air and says she'd sign up immediately.

Previously employed as a scuba diver, Rose has contributed to a special project made by Quilt Stitch students.

It's called Between Quilt and features 16 blocks, each one made by a different woman, which reflect on the "between" that is prison life.

Between Quilt will be auctioned next month to raise funds for Arts Access Aotearoa, the national organisation working to ensure all New Zealanders have access to the arts either as participants or spectators.

With the Department of Corrections, it runs arts programmes in our prisons.

Rose's contribution to Between Quilt talks about her concerns for our oceans. In a booklet accompanying the quilt, she writes:

"Every day I experienced the beauty of the oceans and the amazing creatures we have here in NZ... The penalties for overfishing and killing dolphins should be harsher to show the commercial fishermen that they cannot do this and if they do, they will have heavy consequences. Treasure our dolphins."

Her words are accompanied by fabric featuring dolphins and a hand-stitched scuba diver watching over them.

Other women write about their families, their cultural heritage and hopes for the future.

They talk about past mistakes and pain, moments of peace and the hope of and for new beginnings.

In 2013, a quilt made by Quilt Stitch participants was bought to join Parliament's permanent art collection.

It's viewed by hundreds of visitors and, says Arts Access Aotearoa executive director Richard Benge, proves women are engaged in positive training and creativity while in the Corrections system.

The Quilt Stitch group also makes Angel Quilts, which are donated to Middlemore Hospital for sick babies.

Mary-Ann says of course there's more to the classes than teaching the women how to make beautiful, but functional, goods.

"These women are going to be released one day; most are early school leavers and a good number don't have a lot of employment or life skills," she says, standing in a store room surrounded by bolts of cloth, plastic containers packed with beads and buttons, reels of thread and donated sewing machines.

"Teaching quilting is about teaching literacy and numeracy - give me a measuring tape and I'll show you how it's actually teaching maths - and about how to come up with a project, plan it out and work towards that goal, problem-solve as you go and finish what you start.

"You use little sayings like 'a stitch in time saves nine' and that opens up opportunities for discussion about where these sayings come from so we end up talking a little history, too."

Another volunteer, Kim, describes quilting as a meditative process.

"Some of the Friday-Saturday girls say it keeps them in a good space."

Sue says being able to take her work back to her unit means she can work from lesson to lesson on each of her creations but it can be a "conversation stopper".

"You become so engrossed in what you're doing but it's so rewarding."

Nodding her head in agreement, Mary-Ann says it's important to be wary of whose advice you take when you strike a problem with your work.

"Don't listen to Sally-down-the-alley," she adds.

When she's not teaching, Mary-Ann is often out talking to community groups about Quilt Stitch and drumming up much-needed and always appreciated donations of fabric and other materials.

• Now in its fourth year, the Awesome Arts Access Auction is on Thursday, December 1 at CQ Hotels in Wellington. To learn more, see

*Names have been changed.