When Javed Ali was sent to prison for five years, he discovered a natural talent for embroidery. Images talks to the founder of Doodah Embroidery about his journey from inmate to business owner

On the day that Javed Ali entered HMYOI Deerbolt to serve a five-year sentence for blackmail, the 19-year-old had no idea that when he left prison it would be as an embroiderer. Now aged 22, Javed says going to prison is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. “It introduced me to my future, which is embroidery, and I’ve never been happier.”

At his induction, one of the prison officers recommended the print shop to Javed. “I didn’t know what it was at the time, but they said it would be good experience for the outside.” Those working in the print shop – they’re known as students, not prisoners, explains Pat Gardener, Deerbolt’s learning, skills and employment manager – can acquire a range of skills, from printing canvases and banners to sublimating mugs and embroidering workwear. The print shop takes orders from outside businesses, as well as other prisons, and also works with Team Contracts Embroidery in Durham. It was set up seven years ago and is, explains Pat, the place that other prisons turn to for advice when setting up their own print shop.

Javed learned how to use all the machines but it was embroidery that he really excelled at despite never having been near an embroidery machine in his life.

The prison’s Brother PR655 had been delivered without a manual, so Javed taught himself how to use it by downloading the software and doing all the exercises and tutorials. He also taught himself how to digitise during his daily 8am to 4.30pm stints in the workshop. “Digitising wasn’t too simple, but I just kept practising, practising, practising.”

The tutors soon noticed his natural affinity for embroidery and attention to detail.

“What he used to do – and he’s the only prisoner that I’ve ever known that’s done this and we haven’t had another prisoner since that has done this – if the machine missed a stitch, he would hand sew that stitch in,” says Pat. “He was so patient. He was also very good at designing so if, for instance, a prison wanted a logo for their catering department, he would help design the logo for that.”

Javed set up Doodah Embroidery after learning to embroider in prison

The Prince’s Trust

Two and a half years into his sentence, Javed was released and began looking for work. “I thought it would be easy to get a job. I applied for dozens and dozens of jobs and got loads of interviews, but once I told them about my criminal convictions, nobody was interested.” He realised his best way forward was to set up his own business, and so he got in touch with Pat again who put him in touch with The Prince’s Trust, a youth charity set up to help 13- to 30-year-olds get into education, training and work.

“Honestly, without them, I would be nowhere,” says Javed. “They changed my embroidery idea into a great business plan.” He was assigned a mentor, who still meets with him every month, and together they applied for a grant and loan to set up his new business, Doodah Embroidery in Bolton. Javed had also done IT and Photoshop courses in prison and so used the knowledge he’d gained to create his own website and marketing materials. The loan was used to purchase a Brother PR655 from Stocks Embroidery & Sewing Solutions, which arrived in April this year, ten months after Javed had left prison.

While waiting for the machine purchase to be completed, Javed spent his time diligently marketing his business and letting people know about both his background and his future plans. While he is getting some companies approaching him via his website, he points out that as a new business it’s up to him to introduce himself to other businesses. “I can’t just have a website and think people are going to go to it. I have to start targeting them.”

His relentless marketing of his business, and his openness about his years ‘inside’ and subsequent help from The Prince’s Trust, has caught the attention of both local and national press, and it was this that led to his first ever embroidery job: football shirts for Manchester City FC for the FA Youth Cup final against Chelsea FC. “My local paper did a feature about me coming out of prison and trying to make my life better, so they [Manchester City FC] gave me a chance and I just can’t thank them enough. The guy at the club was a godsend to me, he really was, he gave me a second chance. I’ve done more work with them since – I’m just chuffed to bits.”

He also spends time talking to business mentors for advice, and recently had a phone conversation with James Timpson, chief executive of Timpson, the group that owns Timpson shoe repair and locksmith companies, to see what they could offer each other. Javed is single-minded in his determination that Doodah will be successful and grabs every opportunity to learn and make new contacts wherever he can: “I have to make a success out of it, I’ve got nothing else I can do. I have to make a success of it.”

Javed’s first job was for Manchester City FC

When asked how difficult it’s been getting to this point, he says: “It was very hard, but it has to be. Prison isn’t meant to be easy. It’s made me work for it, it’s made me get along by myself. The last ten months have been an overwhelming experience – it’s been worth it, it really has.”

Javed’s aim for the next 12 months is to move into a workshop (he’s currently working from his spare room) and employ an ex-offender. “I know how hard it is to find a job. I want to employ someone that’s been in the same situation as myself, who’s left prison and doesn’t have any decent qualifications and who can’t find a job because of their criminal record.

“The piece of advice I have for other people inside prison is if you know what you want to do, start putting together a business plan before you leave. I thought I’d look for a job first and obviously looking for a job with a criminal record is completely impossible, so I wasted two and a half months on job searching.”

His achievements so far have been impressive, confirms Pat: “It’s absolutely amazing! I’m getting it plastered all over the print shop corridor walls for when we’ve got Ofsted and HMIP [HM Inspectorate of Prisons] coming in to say ‘Look, we’ve had a success here!’ Javed turned his life around as soon as he went into the print shop. We have some really level-headed prisoners in the jail that really don’t know what talents they’ve got until we actually put them into a workshop and then they realise, ‘Oh gosh, I can do this’.

“If he keeps the quality of the work that he did here in his own business, he’ll thrive, he’ll absolutely thrive.”