Stitching For Success

For two hours on Monday mornings, eight inmates held at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women (SCCW) can forget where they are and why they are there. They can put away the past and focus on the single project at hand, even if only for this short time.

Within the walls of SCCW many opportunities are offered to the women, which provide for self-improvement or to enhance their present life. Such activities include horticulture classes, GED training, a running group, knitting and crocheting groups, as well as work release opportunities. The SCCW is a minimum-security center that holds approximately 350 inmates. It is one of four female institutions in North Carolina.

In 2016, quilting was added to the list of available activities. Marcia Salansky and Diana Rothweiler, members of the Asheville Quilt Guild, began the quilting class. Since then they have taught 25 women basic quilting techniques. These two ladies come to the prison armed with sewing machines, fabric, compassion, and patience.

“The SCCW has purchased six sewing machines, irons, an ironing board, thread, and miscellaneous notions,” explains Marcia. Marcia and Diana each bring a machine to enable a total of eight women the opportunity to make a quilt over an eight-week period. The Asheville Quilt Guild provides the fabric. Marcia and Diana precut the squares, rectangles, and strips needed to complete the quilt and prepare a kit for each woman. The inmates then invest their time to put it together. These blocks are joined together to produce a lap quilt. The quilts are then returned to the Asheville Quilt Guild and donated to several nonprofit organizations such as Project Linus and the NC State Veterans Home.

Says Mark Patneaude, Correctional Programs Supervisor, “This is a great opportunity for the women to learn a craft so they may see the accomplishment of their work. They one day can use this skill to make quilts to share with their children and grandchildren, creating many lasting memories.”

As the machines hummed and the women focused on their project, I walked around and spoke to each of the inmates. I was struck with the sincere gratitude they felt for the opportunity and the appreciation they have for Marcia and Diana. Many of the women have been in prison for 15 or more years. This class gives them a sense of purpose and something tangible to continue once they are released.

“This is my favorite class,” Daney says. “I grew up around quilters. The old quilters prayed over their pieces as they stitched them together. We have a lot to learn from that.” Daney plans to use her new skill to make quilts for her 11- and 13-year-old children.
Before prison, Amber lived in an 18-wheeler and made clothes for her baby daughter using fabric from old clothing of her own. As she patiently and precisely sews rectangular strips onto squares, her mind wanders from her past life to the beautiful colors of the quilt she is making.
Jennifer says she is going home to grandbabies and wants to make each of them a handmade quilt. “I got involved with a man and didn’t pay attention to the red flags. I’m thankful for all my trials and tribulations because being here has brought me closer to God. I’m finally getting back to who I really am. I want to go home and be a good mom and grandmom.”

As the women reflect on the past and dream of their futures outside the gates of SCCW, they strive for perfection in their work. They stitch each seam with precision, cut off loose dangling threads, and press the seams in the correct direction. They know the quilts they are making will not go home with them, but will be given to someone in need. Their desire is that these quilts carry a sense of compassion, peace, and understanding wherever they go.
As each quilting session comes to an end, many of the inmates hope to have the opportunity to take the class again. One inmate says, “I want to get better and better so I can use this skill when I get out.” It is very clear that the inmates benefit emotionally and intellectually from the time Marcia and Diana give to them.

The women of SCCW become family, with their biggest fear being the transition back into the real world. “I’ve been in prison for 13 years. I don’t know how to use a smart phone, debit card, or order food from a machine,” one inmate explains.
Volunteers who are willing to take the inmates out for short trips are a great asset. These outings can include shopping, eating at a local restaurant, or attending a church service. The outings help to introduce the women to the many changes that occurred during their incarceration, and help them transition back into a normal life.

For more information about volunteering or about the quilting project, please contact Mr. Mark Patneaude, Correctional Programs Supervisor at 828-259-6111.

JeanAnn Taylor
Written by JeanAnn Taylor