Making and Mending

Boys sewing Metropolitan School

Instruction of the Pauper Children in the Metropolitan District School, Sutton, Illustrated London News, 1872 via @La_Lynne. For history of school click image for Peter Higginbotham’s Workhouses site

The boys have served more than half their sentences. Less than a fortnight to go. Today they work doggedly on their reading and spelling for over two and a half hours. The teacher is delighted. Since they are keeping to her Rules, she will stay true to her promise and let each boy begin making a shirt to keep when he leaves. They elbow each other to be first to sit at the table, then watch her measure out a piece of calico which she cuts with her large dressmaking scissors to fit the eldest boy.[1] Who will be next?

Miss Martin has supported herself as a seamstress for nearly forty years. She shares her needle-skills with the women prisoners, so they can take in work as good plain needlewomen, find a place in service, and make clothes for their families.[2] The dressmaker, however, does not view sewing as exclusively ‘women’s work’. Though she provides men with a wider range of occupations – making cutlery, straw-hats and seals – she also sets them to sewing hats, caps and shirts, and expects them to mend their own clothes, for which she supplies needle and thread.[3]

Needlework, she has discovered, has a calming effect on boys who will sit for hours stitching patchwork. ‘Of it, they do not tire’ she notes of one group of boys, ‘but are every day asking for more pieces to sew together’. They ‘value’ the activity, she believes, ‘because it tends to secure order and quietness, as well as because it teaches them to sew, so that they may be able to mend their clothes, and make some.’ Tired of their incessant racket, men sometimes ask the teacher to give the boys patchwork to shut them up. But they must earn the favour, she insists, and rations out the patchwork to reward good behaviour.[4]

Though the five boys are excited about their shirts, their attention begins to drift. Three wander off without permission to take some drinking water and chat around the pail. As punishment, they are made to stand with their faces to the wall. Yet the teacher soon relents when they ask to be excused. They rejoin her round the table, ‘And all assured me they would try to be obedient boys there that they might be honest and industrious hereafter.’


Sarah Martin was one of the first practitioners to use productive and remunerated employment to nurture prisoner rehabilitation. In 2014 the voluntary organisation Fine Cell Works continues this tradition, training prisoners in ‘paid, skilled and creative needlework. . . . . to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem.’ 97% of the prisoners who take up this work are men.

Sarah Martin emphasised the ‘useful’ rather than creative advantages of needlework in providing work for ‘idle’ hands. It is apparent from her notes, however, that inmates derived satisfaction from the activity, partly from distraction but also, perhaps, from the pleasure of mixing colour and pattern and creating something lasting.  The therapeutic benefits of practical and creative employment in needlework to the incarcerated, in the present and in the past, were explored in Frayed: Textiles on the Edge, a recent exhibition at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth.[5]

Fine Cell Works

Display of work produced by prison worker/artist for Fine Cell Works at Frayed: Textiles on the Edge, exhibition at Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, 2014

[1] Sarah Martin’s Every Day Book, 17 January 1840, The Tolhouse Museum, Great Yarmouth Museum Services.

[2] Sarah Martin, The Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth, With Extracts from her Writings and Prison Journals (London: Religious Tract Society, n.d. [1847]), p. 21.

[3] Ibid, p. 22. For tantalising glimpses of Victorian boys and men sewing, see Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 117-8. Sailors, she points out, had to mend their own clothes aboard ship. Coming from a seaport, it is likely the boys will have known men who could turn their hand to the needle, even though, once married, men tended to leave making and mending to their wives.

[4] Ibid, p. 126-7.

[5] Listen to a fascinating podcast by Ruth Battersby on curating the exhibition, ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’, delivered at ‘Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in Europe 1600-1900’, Institute of Historical Research, 11 October, 2013,, accessed 21 March 2014.

2 thoughts on “Making and Mending

  1. Pingback: Grey Cotton Shirts | Conviction

  2. Pingback: Departure | Conviction

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