For some prisoners, stitching becomes therapyWith gold thread, Kim Young-mi (not her real first name) touches up an outline of sea waves on the bottom of her silk canvas. She twists the thread with her fingers before sewing each stitch, adding extra layers. With a sigh, she steps back from the canvas.
The embroidered mountains on the canvas have a ghostly presence, emerging from the scene like a dreary graveyard viewed at night. The pine trees, sewn in layers of colors ranging from mint green to dark turquoise, display the elegant beauty of the Korean landscape while the intricate needlework highlights the subtle details, like the coarse grains of wood.
“This is strangely soothing,” says Ms. Kim, an inmate at Cheongju Women’s Prison who won the top award at a national embroidery competition last year. “I’ve had most of my fingers pricked by now, but it’s been good so far.”
Ms. Kim is one of the 620 adult offenders housed at the facility, the only women’s prison in the country, which was built in Cheongju, South Chungcheong province, in 1989. The facility holds women who have committed serious crimes ― about one quarter of them killed their husbands in domestic disputes. For some of them, the embroidery class at Cheongju has been a critical channel to communicate with the outside world and to bring emotional composure to their lives.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Ms. Kim stretched out her hands to show the calluses on her fingertips. To prepare for an embroidery exhibit in October, she is spending extra hours of her free time sewing. It’s a habit that Ms. Kim, who came to the prison 12 years ago after being convicted of murder, simply could not have imagined in the past.
“Maybe it’s because of my age,” Ms. Kim, who recently turned 55, says, smiling. “But I am just thankful that the time goes by fast when I stitch.”
One night, she pricked her finger deeply while she was stitching under a dim light in her cell. The experience of hurting herself, though, brought a strange sense of relief, and she says she developed the habit of sewing at night after the incident.
“I felt something in my heart,” she says. “It really hurt. I felt that I shouldn’t have hurt others through my mistakes. Not anymore. And the thought kept me intensely focused on every stitch I made.”
As a gift, she recently sent her mother in Gwangju an embroidery of a bamboo tree, a plant that suggests longevity in traditional Korean paintings. In a letter her mother recently wrote to Ms. Kim, she said Ms. Kim’s youngest son held onto the embroidered fabric she had sent, rubbing the stitches with his hands as if he were touching his mother’s skin.
Ms. Kim, who had maintained a cheerful mood, suddently sobbed as she started to talk about her children. By the time she is released, in another six or seven years, her resident registration will have been automatically terminated. That will leave her status up in the air, making her a person without a home. That clearly bothers Ms. Kim, but she says, “When it’s time to get released, I will get released.”
Like many inmates, Ms. Kim originally joined a vocational class so she could enroll in a provincial competition, which gives inmates a rare chance to leave their cells and meet their families outside the prison.
A majority of inmates sign up for classes in cooking and hairdressing, which provide better opportunities for them to find jobs after they are released. Indeed, hand embroidery has been one of the least popular skills taught at Cheongju; the course was originally started in 1990, a year after the prison opened, to foster the inmates’ mental therapy. In 1997, it changed to machine embroidery, then returned to hand embroidery in 1998 when taught by Lee Yeon-suk, a professional hand embroiderer.
Only 10 inmates are currently signed up for the class, including Ms. Kim. But within the past few years, a small group from Cheongju’s embroidery class has won major awards and prizes at national competitions, which take place every year at high school gyms or community centers.
Following Ms. Kim’s award last year, Choi Eun-hee, one of the junior inmates that Ms. Kim has been coaching, won a bronze medal in a provincial competition recently. Another woman, a former inmate at Cheongju who won several major provincial awards, set up her own embroidery shop in Mokpo after she was released. During the provincial competition in Daejeon earlier this year, she visited the contestants she knew from Cheongju’s embroidery class to offer encouragement.
Ms. Choi says she finds most pleasure in stitching small flowers. The piece she is working on now is an image of camellias with snowflakes on their petals. Last year she sent an embroidery of an orchid to her family.
“It’s given me a lot of peace,” she says. “It’s something I can think of as a profession when I am out of here.”
For Ms. Kim, the Daejeon competition involved more than winning 6 million won ($6,000) in prize money. In an exhibit that followed the competition, her works stole the show. By the time her family came to buy her embroidery, the pieces had all been sold. One of the people who bought her work during the show visited Ms. Kim at Cheongju a few months later, telling her there will be good moments wherever she is as long as she maintains her faith. That encouragement, Ms. Kim says, has been a spiritual nourishment for her life in the prison. But most of all, her trip was her first outing in 12 years.
“As I got out of the car, I was worried that it would feel strange somehow,” she says. “But it wasn't. It felt like I just stayed home for a while and came out. I knew there were people who were staring at me, but that didn’t bother me.”
Ms. Lee, the embroidery instructor at Cheongju, thinks the needlework has had a critical impact on most women in her class, but especially Ms. Kim.
“She looks far more settled now than she was when I first saw her,” Ms. Lee says. “I remember her telling me that she could do something useful from now on when she is released. I think she’s reached a state of serenity.”
Han Gyeong-hwa, a vocational director at Cheongju and one of the main officials to back the embroidery class, says some of the women in the prison have enough skills so that they probably won’t have to worry about making a living once they are released. “But the main priority of the classes is to calm the emotional distress for the women,” she says.
During one afternoon, Ms. Kim returns to her outlines of the sea on her canvas. The piece, which she started in January, still is far from being completed. But her hands move faster as the days go by before her exhibit in July.
In an old embroidery tradition, women used to say that the hands are the outlet of the spirit.
“It took me a month just to do the waves,” Ms. Kim says, smiling. “But it’s definitely my favorite part of the piece. You see, nothing comes free.”
by Park Soo-mee