Fred Brown was 25 years into a 15-years-to-life prison sentence when he discovered that he enjoyed cutting out fabric squares of princesses and Care Bears and sewing them into quilts.
“When I was a kid [in Chicago], my mom sewed drapes, but I never thought of sewing as something I’d want to do myself,” said Brown, 66, an inmate at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Mo.
As he started quilting in the correctional center’s sewing room, he was struck by a newfound respect for the craft.
“I learned quickly that women who have sewn all their lives are mathematical geniuses,” he said. “It takes a lot of math to calculate your seam allowances. And the angles and circles. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Brown, who is serving time for armed kidnapping and rape, said he began sewing four years ago when he heard about a small group of inmates who gathered daily in South Central’s sewing room to volunteer to make quilts for charitable organizations and children in foster homes.
“When I learned that I could help bring a smile to a child’s face, I was all in,” he said. “Right now, I’m working on a puppy quilt that will go to a 13-year-old boy. I don’t know anything about him, but I have a feeling he’s going to love this quilt.”
Brown’s latest creation is among more than 2,000 quilts that have been made by inmates from fabric donated to the prison in the last decade, said Joe Satterfield, a prison case manager at South Central who oversees the program.
The prison quilting circle started about 10 years ago as a way for inmates to contribute to the community around them.
Men who come to the sewing room each morning generally work on two projects: They design quilts that can be auctioned by local charities at fundraisers and sew personalized birthday quilts for foster children in Texas County, Mo., where the prison is located.
“They especially love making something for kids who might have nothing,” said Satterfield, 42. “Social service caseworkers in the area provide us with the kids’ first names and birthdays, and the guys do the rest.”
The men appreciate that sewing is something positive they can do while they’re serving their sentences, Satterfield said.
Most of the men who participate in the program are fathers, he said, and more than a few have known the uncertainty of growing up in foster care.
“They can relate because they’ve been there,” Satterfield said. “It gives them comfort and satisfaction to know that a quilt they’ve made is going to a child who may not get another birthday present.”
South Central’s 1,580 inmates can also volunteer to put together hygiene kits for foster children or make teddy bears and stocking hats. But the quilting project especially requires a sense of commitment, Satterfield explained.
“From start to finish, they have to see each quilt through,” he said. “You can really see a change in attitude with the guys after they’ve been doing this a while. There’s a sense of community and pride.”
William White was a few weeks into a 25-year prison sentence for two counts of first-degree assault in 2015 when he learned about the prison’s sewing room.
White once ran an upholstery business in St. Louis and thought that pitching in on sewing projects might help the days pass faster.
When he saw firsthand what the men were doing in the sewing room, he said he felt a new sense of purpose.
“The guys were making these beautiful quilts to give away to foster kids, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” said White, 49. “I have six kids, and sewing had always been my passion. And now here was a way for me to give back.”
White said he spends nearly seven hours every weekday designing and sewing birthday quilts for children after he’s finished with his shift as a prep cook from 2:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.
“I don’t need much sleep, and besides, I’d rather be here doing something for a child who needs it,” White said. “Even though I’m incarcerated, I can still do something beautiful.”
For Richard Sanders, sitting behind a sewing machine taught him to slow down and think about his life, he said.
After Sanders was sentenced in 1979 to life without parole for his role in a robbery and two murders in St. Louis, he said it took years for him to realize that he needed to look inside himself and make some changes.
“I was young and stubborn and wanted to keep to myself,” he said. “But as I grew older, I decided that I had to stop blaming others and do something to help make up for what I did.”
Sanders, now 62, said he didn’t know a top stitch from a straight stitch when he first stepped into the sewing room at another Missouri prison about 20 years ago. But he signed up for sewing classes and was eventually put to work making prison guard uniforms.
When he was transferred to South Central in 2015, he said he was asked by another inmate if he could come down to the sewing room to help fix a broken machine.
“After I’d fixed it, a couple of guys talked me into trying it out, and pretty soon, I was sewing a quilt,” he said. “I learned something new about myself: I really like making quilts. And inside this room, there’s a peaceful environment.”
In recent years, Sanders estimated that he has sewn several hundred quilts, including one with a farm machinery theme and several that are covered with high school mascots.
After he’s finished with each one, he snaps a photo and mails it to his mother, he said.
“When I was a boy, I used to watch my grandma sew,” Sanders said. “She’d make something from nothing all the time. She’d get a design in her mind and just start sewing, pretty much like I do today.”
Sanders shares his creative skills with other inmates and encourages them to come up with new ideas.
One of the inmates he taught was Brown, who now spends evenings in his cell flipping through quilting magazines in search of new patterns.
“I’ve made quilts with Tigger and Piglet and Strawberry Shortcake, and I’ve made quite a few quilts with a purple theme,” Brown said.
It’s a point of pride that he takes great care with every small detail of his sewing.
“Making birthday quilts for these kids is the most meaningful thing I’ve done since I’ve been in prison,” he added. “It makes me feel better about why I’m here.”