On a cold afternoon, as I entered the female political ward in Evin prison, something very familiar caught my eyes; an old grey industrial sewing machine on a wooden stand, right by the entrance, resting quietly with its flap tilted over. Next to it, there was a sign on the wall: “The hours to use the sewing machine are between 10 to 12am every Sunday and Wednesday. Please ensure any garments are washed before handing them over to Fatemeh for mending.”

I had been a political pawn between Iran and the UK for six years, during which I spent time between solitary confinement, prison and under house arrest. During the first nine months of my detention, I was kept in a cell with no fresh air or natural light. Once I entered the cell, they made me remove all my clothing and put on a uniform. It was compulsory as everyone had to look the same.

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The uniform in dull pink consisted of a manteau – a long-sleeve gown with buttons in the front – and baggy trousers made of polyester. The fabric didn’t allow skin to breathe, so you felt hot and sweaty in the summer and cold in the winter. I am small, but they gave me a double extra-large size outfit. It was deliberately huge and ill-fitting; I had to roll up the sleeves and wrap the waist around my body to stop the trousers from falling down. To make it worse, they only gave me one set. I felt disgusted wearing the same clothes after showering.

Identical uniforms in prisons are used as a tool to enforce discipline and impose power. The idea behind giving every inmate an oversize, cheap uniform in deliberately dull colours is to dehumanise them. The moment you put the uniform on, you are no longer yourself; you lose your name and identity. To them, you are just a number.

“Uniforms in prisons are used as a tool to enforce discipline and impose power”

I arrived in the Evin ward on Christmas Day 2016; the day I turned 38. The representative of the ward, Nargess Mohammadi, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2023, collected me from the guard’s office and took me inside. She offered me a seat and asked someone to get me a cup of tea while others gathered around me asking questions; “How are you, how long have you been in solitary? Have you seen your daughter recently?” As I was trying to get my head around the new place, I noticed some women passing by, dressed up rather elegantly. It felt utterly misplaced, as if they were going to a party. When one of the inmates brought me the tea, I asked her what was going on. She said there was a Christmas party.

The idea of having a party and dressing up for it in prison sounds peculiar except to those who have experienced it for prolonged periods. We know very well that this is a way to connect to the outside world; not allowing ourselves to be defined by the grey walls, but to rise above them. It is a reminder that life does not end in prison, but is to be celebrated even more at the hardest of times. Over the next couple of years in Evin, I found out that everyone had at least one suitably glamorous garment kept for special occasions.

nazanin zaghari ratcliffe wears the liberty print dress that she made during her incarceration in iran

Rachel Louise Brown

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe wears the Liberty-print dress that she made during her incarceration in Iran

Clothes are a crucial part of our identity. They reveal such a lot about us. The colours and patterns we choose are an indication of our mood and emotions. In most circumstances in life, we own the power over what we wear. I was deprived of that power to tell a story about myself through clothes all the time I was in solitary confinement. When I was transferred to the general ward, I aimed to gain that power back.

Unlike men, who were forced to wear uniforms when leaving prison to go to court or hospital, we female prisoners did not have a set uniform in the general ward. Someone had already won that battle for us, and we were not willing to give it up, despite pressures from the prison authorities. We had young women sent to the ward for disobeying the dress code in public places or refusing to wear the compulsory hijab, something which eventually led to mass protests in 2022, with women defying the morality police for their right to choose what to wear. These women had paid a huge price by challenging the dress code, and for the prison authorities to think they could change their minds was naïve.

two cardigans zaghari ratcliffe knitted in prison for her daughter

Rachel Louise Brown

Two cardigans Zaghari-Ratcliffe knitted in prison for her daughter

However, we were not entirely free to choose what to wear. At the beginning of each season, we were allowed to receive up to 12 garments sent to us by our families. The guards checked the clothes before handing them over to us, to ensure they followed the rules – no lining, no see-through fabric or revealing items. On clothes delivery days, the ward was ecstatic. Everyone was excited to see the choices made for them. Once past the security check, we were called to pick up our clothes. The excitement was high in the ward. Many women tried on their clothes and showed them off. It felt like a modest fashion show. But there were also moments of disappointment.

Newcomers had the chance to have their own clothes sent to them, but this wasn’t an option for those of us serving in prison for years; we had to rely on the choice of others. Sometimes the colours were ugly, the sizes weren’t right or the shapes were odd. It was like an internet shopping experience going wrong; when you might order something online and receive something completely different. For that reason, many traded their clothes for something else, or simply donated the unwanted ones to the ward.

details of a dress embroidered by zaghari ratcliffe while under house arrest

Rachel Louise Brown

Details of a dress embroidered by Zaghari-Ratcliffe while under house arrest

As a political prisoner, your presence could be temporary and your release sudden. Often women were relocated to other prisons, so their clothes were left behind. Once we made sure the exit was definite and the return was unlikely, we’d donate them to Tanakura, the clothes section within the ward, named after an idea that evolved from the late 1980s, when, right after the Iran-Iraq war, second-hand clothes from the US, Europe and China became popular: a trend called Tanakura. Inspired by this concept, in Tanakura we kept donated clothes in various sizes and based on seasons. We’d ensure the quality and hygiene of the clothes before handing them over to newcomers, or those who did not have the option of receiving clothes from outside.

Passing on clothes was a common practice as a way of showing people they were special to you. Through clothes, you were connected to the prisoners before and after you, just a temporary custodian of these garments. It made you realise you were part of a wider struggle, a broader community of women enduring injustice. Some clothes were precious and treasured because of who had worn them before. People were memorialised in the ward by seeing their old clothes on new shoulders, almost like wearing an inherited scarf or piece of jewellery. And that was a powerful thing.

making pieces for her daughter became a kind of solace for zaghari ratcliffe

Rachel Louise Brown

Making pieces for her daughter became a kind of solace for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Life on the ward was similar to being on a university campus. We were a group of women cooking, reading, fighting and creating together, with one exception: we did not choose one another. Our experience was repetitive and regimented, and how to pass the time was the main challenge of the day. In solitary confinement, time was stagnant; there was literally nothing to do. The longer you spent in solitary, the more you appreciated life in the general ward, where sewing, knitting, woodwork and other forms of creativity affirmed a different world from prison.

A prisoner’s life is full of struggles, unexpected hopes and frustrations. Waiting for freedom could be tough and tiring. The days when sentences were announced, inmates were taken to trial or relocated to other prisons, we were all filled with anger and disappointment. Those were some of the worst days in the ward. To cope, we used every occasion to celebrate by holding onto little things that connected us to our life beyond prison walls. Giving away presents at the time of release was a fundamental practice. We crafted hand-made accessories to be given as presents or at times, to adorn our outfits when choices were limited. We recycled every piece of scrap fabric, leather, wool, button, wood and bead to make earrings, bracelets, necklaces, hair pins or even belts. We also helped each other by teaching these skills, and everyone was keen to pass them on to the newcomers.

zaghari ratcliffe wearing the same mustard yellow dress, which she made in prison

Rachel Louise Brown

Zaghari-Ratcliffe wearing the mustard-yellow dress she made in prison

Knitting was one of the easiest and more popular options available. The prison is located on top of Evin Hills, making it brutally cold in the winter. Every year as the autumn approached, we took out our wool and needles and started knitting, either on our own or in groups. Hats, scarves and slippers were the most common pieces; the more experienced ones knitted cardigans and jumpers. When one pattern was mastered successfully, everybody else followed it. Quite often, we all ended up wearing the same jumper or cardigan in the ward in different colours and sizes, at the same time.

I knitted a lot. For months, I collected little bits of remaining wool from those who were about to be released. Using them, I crocheted small flower motifs in various colours and by joining them together, I made a pinafore for my baby girl. I called it the ‘freedom pinafore’ because the wool I used once belonged to those who were freed. I also knitted woollen hats and gave them away as presents to my friends in Evin.

“Life does not end in prison, but is to be celebrated even more at the hardest of times”

Sewing was a more novel experience just because not everyone was allowed to use the sewing machine. The day after I arrived in Evin, I looked for Fatemeh, the inmate in charge of it. She was an expert seamstress, who not only mended clothes but also made them to order. Just like many other things, clothes are cherished in prison as they are scarce. No one would give up wearing a loved garment until it was absolutely unwearable and unsalvageable. Fatemeh was the person to go to when inmates needed something mended or upcycled. She had her moments of frustration too, when someone would ask her to enlarge a small outfit or turn a pair of trousers and a shirt into a jumpsuit. “I don’t have a magic wand,” she would say.

I was keen to help her with the use of the sewing machine. Once she saw my enthusiasm and tested my skills, she accepted me as her assistant. I helped her mend clothes and that was my first responsibility in prison. I always loved sewing, but before I was imprisoned, I had never stepped out of my comfort zone of sewing little things for my baby girl. I was never brave enough to sew for myself. Every week, we had a trainer in prison teaching us skills including working with leather, painting on fabric, carving wood and weaving kilim. I knew she was a seamstress and only taught us in prison as a side job. I asked her about sewing and she offered to teach me how to make my own pattern. That transformed my entire sewing experience; something I carried on after I got released.

a blouse made by zaghari ratcliffe in evin prison

Rachel Louise Brown

A blouse made by Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Evin prison

Every Friday afternoon, when everyone rushed into the yard to play volleyball or socialise, I had the chance to have the entire ward to myself. I spread my fabric on the table, pinned the pattern and cut up the fabric without being disturbed. Those were the most tranquil moments of my time in Evin. I was always a huge fan of Liberty fabric and, over time, had picked up some classic prints back in London but I never could bring myself to use any of them; they were too good to be cut up. Somehow though, I managed to get them sent over to me from London to Evin. Prison had taught me there was no such thing as a special moment; the only special moment we have is now. Ironically, the Liberty fabric that I had bought as a free person landed in my hands when I had no liberty at all, and connected me to the days I was free.

During Covid, I was released to my parents’ home under house arrest with an ankle tag. It was tough, as some of my friends were still stuck in prison. I wanted to help them, but there was very little I could do, so I decided to make face masks for them using scrap pieces of fabric. My mother got me some matching thread and thin elastic for the masks. Using her old machine, I ended up sewing around 300 face masks for my fellow prisoners in Evin, my daughter in London, and many of my friends in the UK. The face masks eventually found their way to Evin hidden inside pockets or socks. With increased cases of Covid in prison, more prisoners came out on furlough. It was wonderful to see pictures of them outside Evin gate, wearing the masks I had made. It made my heart melt.

Prison was a curious experience; it was tough and unjust but gave me precious lessons too, including the importance of nurturing humanity in dark times. And clothes were a huge part of survival – the way they helped us make a different world inside and kept our connections to the world outside. Just like many others, I left most of my belongings behind when I departed Evin, except a couple of pieces I was gifted by some special people. We eventually leave prison, but our story remains. And now, even living in freedom, the first place I take refuge when life is tough is my little sewing corner at home.

This piece originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

In the lead image, Zaghari-Ratcliffe wears top, £445; skirt, £675, both Edeline Lee. Suede mules, £595, Manolo Blahnik. Styled by Grace Clarke.