“This is about helping ex-offenders to walk a new path, and to equip them with the tools they need. With support, there is always a way back – and this amazing dress is testament to what can be achieved.

Only by supporting people into new, healthy and fulfilling lives can we break the cycle of criminality and despair. I hope you have been inspired by the beautiful things you have seen, to know what wonders can be achieved with a little help, a little belief, and a little hope”  –  Fiona Woolf, The Lord Mayor, speaking in The Old Bailey

In November last year a fashion designer called Sue Bonham (with clients from royalty to WHAM!) approached Blue Sky Inside with an interesting proposition: she asked whether we would help to manufacture her new collection in prison. The high-end, elegant outfits were needed for a charity fashion show at the Old Bailey in April. Always looking for new initiatives to get stuck into we of course said yes and set about planning how to pull off this exciting (albeit slightly daunting) opportunity.

Up until that point the women in our Stitch in Time workshop in HMP Bronzefield had been producing cotton dustbags, jewellery bags and table linen. Returning from the Christmas break a group of them eagerly started learning about collars, cuffs, buttonholes, hems and zips. Completely new territory for most of them (some had never even sat behind a sewing machine before joining Stitch) but with Sue’s guidance, along with her seamstress Comfort, they got stuck in. Some of the garments required hand embroidery and for that we asked Fine Cell Work to help. They work with approximately 400 prisoners a year doing paid, professional and top quality embroidery. As the end of April was approaching the Stitch workshop was slightly chaotic with nearly 40 dresses, skirts and jackets being assembled and pressed.

On Monday night the Old Bailey’s magnificent Grand Hall was transformed into a catwalk with the 150 guests being treated to a fashion show with a difference. As each model came out in a faultless, sophisticated and stylish outfit we were reminded by the compère that it was made in prison by women who have learnt countless new skills making it. The Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, had her outfit for the night made especially for her in prison and it was hand finished by Maria, one of our former Stitch workers. In her speech The Lord Mayor thanked Maria personally for her work and she was there on the night to be congratulated which was so evidently a proud moment for her.

Guests were also told about Nicole who designed and made the final dress of the show. When she’s released she now wants to pursue a career as a fashion designer and stay as far away from a prison cell as possible. This opportunity has given Nicole, and many others, the confidence and drive to be ambitious about what is possible to achieve when they get out of prison. We are just pleased that we will be able to help and support them through the journey.

“Working with the women in the “Stitch in time” workshop was an inspiring  experience. Over a 12 week period the women, who thought they had little or no skill, discovered that with training they actually did have the ability to do some quite intricate work. It was a real pleasure to work with them and watch their progress” – Sue Bonham

Our thanks to photographer Hannah Gray.