Even Knitting Can’t Make a Prison Cell Cozy

When I visited my friend Martha in Philadelphia we squeezed in historical tours and several shows connected with the FiberDelphia celebration.  Even the historical tours included textiles.  The Eastern State Penitentiary tour was engrossing.  The well-paced audio tour led you down long, ominous halls lined with bleak cells.  The walls are crumbling and the peeling paint is so deep as to be sculptural.  When erected in the mid-1800s the building concept was novel.  Before that time incarceration wasn’t considered part of sentencing; jails were holding places until sentences of generally physical punishment were meted.  The “penitentiary” was built to separate prisoners and keep them in small cells, giving them ample time to be penitent and realize the errors of their ways. Silence was a part of the punishment; guards walking down the long arched corridors wore wool socks over their shoes to muffle their presence.

The works of several artists were featured along the long, arched corridors, generally tucked into the cells.   There were small sculptures, video, steel, stained glass, and yes, yarn. Karen Schmidt’s piece, Cozy, covered an entire cell with knitting. It took her five months to create the installation; it felt like time solidified, perhaps similar to the experience of a prisoner.  She compared the stitches on the walls to the ticks often made on prison walls, marking time.  There are more fiber links in the prison’s history.  Fabrics were woven by inmates.  One time a prisoner stole yarn from the dyeing room to fashion a escape rope.




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