Cover Image: The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison

The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison

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Member Reviews

This is a joint review between myself and All the Books I Can Read (https://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com/2021/08/13/joint-review-the-dressmakers-of-yarrandarrah-prison-by-meredith-jaffe/)

{M}: If it is okay with you I am going to start with the gushing and then we can talk about the book!

I read The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. It is one of only two 5 star reads for me so far this year and I have recommended it to quite a few people since I read it. When you said that you had just finished reading it, I jumped on the opportunity to talk about it!

What were your feelings about the book as you finished it?

{B}: I’m all for the gushing! Well. I read it basically because you’d told me a little while ago that you loved it. I originally started it on audio (which I was enjoying) but I also picked up a print copy recently in a sale and that enabled me to finish it faster.

Honestly? I think my overall feeling when I finished the book was just…..happy satisfaction. Like this book just gave me such joy reading it, especially the ending. And I feel as though things like that are really important right now. I read it in a couple of hours, it was just so easy to sink into this story. I never thought I’d get so invested in a bunch of prison inmates but I really did. 

So I guess let’s start with the setting. It is set mostly inside the Yarrandarrah prison and a lot of our main characters are the inmates. Have you read many books set predominantly in a prison before?

{M}: I am pretty sure I have never read a book set where the majority of it is set inside a prison. Watched TV shows, yes, but read books?  I can’t think of one. Have you?

{B}: No, I don’t think so. Mostly I think I’ve read brief scenes where cops go visit a prisoner because they need information or something but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that revolved around it so completely before.

{M}: In many ways, the story treads familiar ground in terms of being sure not to upset the wrong people, distrust, violence between prisoners. Against all this we get to know a group of characters who manage to form a bond, despite the fact that being in prison means that anyone of them could get moved away without even being warned. 

Our main character is Derek who is in prison for embezzling funds from his local golf club. It’s a crime, but you know….not as bad as other people there. Derek tries to keep to himself mostly. His ex wife makes it clear that she wants nothing more to with him and tells him that his daughter Debbie doesn’t either, but still Derek writes her a letter every week. When his former sister in law visits to tell him that Debbie is getting married, he wants to do something for her, but what can he do from inside when he is broke.

What did you think of Derek and the story of his crime?

{B}: I actually felt kind of sorry for him! I know he did the wrong thing and there are consequences for such things but it felt like Derek was kind of a man at the end of his rope who had one thing in life that gave him pleasure and unfortunately, that one thing was his downfall. His marriage is not great, his wife has lifestyle aspirations that he cannot fulfil and mostly he just seemed so miserable! Derek makes mistakes absolutely and he finds himself completely abandoned by pretty much everyone from his life, except his elderly father who is the only one that will accept his phone calls or write to him. It’s a lonely existence I think, and Derek just tries to keep his head down in prison and get through each day as it brings him closer to release. I felt like there were a lot of things that weren’t touched on in detail here but you could pull them out and examine them if you wanted to, such as the length of Derek’s sentence vs the length given for some violent crimes. You could absolutely use this book as the starting point for many discussions about issues surrounding incarceration, don’t you think?

{M}: For sure! One of the interesting discussion points could be what the role of prison is. Is it for punishment or is it for rehabilitation? And what role does education play, especially if you have someone who may never get released. In the book there is a character called Doc who is quite old and is most likely never going to be freed again but he still tries to learn as much as he can, but he also helps some of the younger prisoners learn to read.

At the heart of this story is a sewing group, which is based on an actual group in the UK called Fine Cell Work which goes into prisons and runs programs where the prisoners get to complete sewing projects, think cushion covers as an example, and learn new skills which they then may use once they get released.

While Derek is trying to figure out what he can do for his daughter, a new member joins the group, and then the  group as a whole try to convince him that they can make his daughter’s wedding dress. But how can they do that when Derek hasn’t seen his daughter in years so they have no idea what size she is, what style of dress she wants, or even whether she will accept the dress.

It was a struggle for Derek to make this decision. Did you understand his reservations? And what did you think of the other groups of the sewing group, who all brought different skills to the mix.



I think Derek feared rejection and getting outside his comfort zone. He writes faithfully to his daughter regularly, has done for five years, but has never heard back. She’s never been to visit him. Derek’s daughter was quite young when he went to jail, about 16 and I think his downfall affected her life considerably. Derek struggles to make the decision to make her the dress because I think that if his daughter rejects it, rejects him, then he has to confront the idea full on that their relationship is over.


The idea about prisons and their purpose is a really interesting one. I know a lot of people get up in arms when you talk about things prisoners are allowed access to, such as television, etc. But the reasons people are there are wide and varied and if you don’t give them the chance to educate themselves or further that education, to build skills and develop healthy habits, what chance do they have of getting employment or not sliding back into previous habits when released? Doc is incredibly creepy but when the prison library is threatened, he does have a point. Libraries provide education and recreational opportunities and surely bored prisoners are more dangerous than engaged and occupied prisoners!


I really enjoyed the prison sewing group - there was something really sweet about imagining these men sewing cushions and quilts and learning new and more intricate sewing skills and imagining the idea of making this wedding dress. I thought Joey was a standout character and I also quite enjoyed Sean and I love the idea that this is based on a thing that actually exists. I have to admit, I did quite a bit of googling after I finished this and looked at the Fine Cell Work website - there’s a lot of stuff for sale! As someone who cannot sew to save her life, I admired the work done. They even offer the chance to commission something bespoke, which I thought was fantastic.


Did you find it easy to “picture” the dress the men made?


M: I had read somewhere that the book cover was a good representation of the dress so I kept that in mind as I was reading. And that in itself was enough to blow me away as I am not a sewer either. I mean, I learnt when I was young, but misplaced my sewing machine about 20 years ago and haven’t really missed it since!


Joey was definitely a standout character for me. His spirit and joy balanced against his harrowing story was a pleasure to read. I like to think that I can imagine exactly where Joey is in his life right now. I think that one of the real skills that the author exhibited is telling us enough about each prisoner's story without losing track of the fact that these men are in prison for a reason.


We’ve talked a lot about the prisoners but there were other layers to the story. We got insights into Debbie’s life and how her parents dysfunctional relationship as well as small town politics and more!


It really is a complete, well rounded story.
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When Derek finds out his only child is getting married, he wants to get her a gift to show how much he loves her. The problem is that he is in prison for embezzlement and he has not seen or heard from her in five years, despite the fact he writes to her every week. What Derek and his daughter don’t know are that his ex wife has been hiding the letters he writes. With some help from a motley bunch of crims and a dedicated volunteer who leads their sewing group each week, Derek sets out to make Deb her dream wedding dress. In the process of Naing the dress, new relationships are formed, troubles are overcome and new hope for the future is found. But will the dress manage to reunite father and daughter? This was a beautifully written story and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison is the third adult novel by Australian author, Meredith Jaffé. With two years left to serve on his seven-year sentence for embezzlement, Derek Brown is dismayed to learn that his only daughter, Debbie, is getting married in a mere seven months’ time. He clearly won’t be able to attend, but needs to do something significant to ensure their once-strong connection is not severed forever.

Debs wants only a small, intimate wedding, family and close friends, but her imperious mother, Lorraine is insisting on “the full catastrophe” and Debs is both weary of, and demoralised by, trying on dresses that do nothing to flatter her ample curves. If only she had eloped with Ian…

Derek has a mere $200 in his prison account, which won’t pay for a decent wedding gift, so he asks Jane for advice. Jane Watts volunteers every Thursday at Yarrandarrah Correctional Centre via the Connecting Threads program, teaching her Backtackers to sew, trying to give them meaning and purpose through quilting and embroidery. And there’s some genuine and varied talent amongst these burly, hardened criminals.

Between Jane and the other inmates, the (frankly ludicrous) suggestion that the group helps Derek make Debbie’s wedding dress is given serious consideration. Derek can only see drawbacks and pitfalls, but Jane maintains that this will be a personal gift, made by his own hand, that will truly demonstrate his love for her. 

Jane tries to get Debbie’s measurements for the dress, but one encounter with Derek’s vindictive ex-wife sends her packing. Unwilling to abandon the project now that she has her stitchers on board, she is not entirely honest, deciding to wing it from the one view of the bride-to-be. She reasons her motives are pure, although she does have further plans for the dress…

Jane’s best friend and flatmate, Councillor Susannah Cockburn is the unsuccessful candidate in the recent mayoral election. When the new mayor announces plans to shut down Yarrandarrah’s library (currently the sole source of reading matter for the gaol), she decides to bring him down off his pedestal by stirring up a bit of community outrage. 

Susannah also reasons that her “public good” end justifies her means, but a few rumours intended to get the prison community equally agitated have unanticipated consequences.

The premise of Jaffé’s story immediately draws the reader’s interest: the incongruity of the image, so well depicted, of a group of brawny prisoners reverently gathered around an exquisite wedding gown, cannot fail to delight. 

Jaffé’s characters have depth and tons of appeal: even the hardest hearts will be wishing for obstacles to be overcome and Debbie to walk down the aisle wearing the Backtackers’ masterpiece. Minor characters, too, are given wise words and insightful observations.

As well as demonstrating the positive rehabilitation features of sewing classes in gaols (relief of boredom and tension, a sense of achievement and potential career direction), Jaffé’s story champions community libraries and touches on those addictive behaviours apart from drugs and alcohol, that are not always acknowledged for their destructive effects in society.

Contained within a wonderfully evocative cover, this is a thought-provoking, but also a funny and feel-good read. Guaranteed to be a favourite for 2021.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harper Collins Australia.
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What an absolutely delightful story! Just loved it. A story of love, friendship and support that is so lovely and refreshing to read. 

Derek has been in prison for five out of seven years for embezzlement of funds from his golf club. Divorced from his wife, he is estranged from his daughter who he finds out is about to be marry. He wants to give her something special but has no money. He is a member of the prisoners sewing group called the Backtackers and the idea emerges to make his daughter Debbie her wedding dress; not just any dress but one made with love. This leads to an entanglement of other issues with a lot of tensions about what will happen and whether the dress will be finished or even worn. Lots of characters that are, perhaps, a little stereotypes but still add to a wonderful story.
Highly recommended light and easy read

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for a copy to read and review.
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‘When Sharon enters the room, Derek doesn’t know where to look.’

Derek Brown, a prisoner at the Yarrandarrah Correctional Centre for embezzling funds, learns that his daughter Debbie is getting married when his (former) sister-in-law Sharon visits him. Derek’s been imprisoned for five years and still has two to serve. Sharon is the first visitor he has had except for his lawyer. Derek writes to his daughter every week, but he has never heard back from her. Debbie is 21, and she is planning to marry in seven months.

Derek cannot be present and has no money. How can he prove to his daughter that he loves her?
Derek is part of a prison sewing group called Backtackers, a group run by a charity which teaches male prisoners quilting and embroidery. Jane is the teacher for Yarrandarrah, and Derek seeks her advice.
Eventually, with time ticking by and after discussion and agonising about what to do, the Backtackers decide to make a wedding dress. At times, Derek is the least committed to this project but other men in the group are caught up by the idea. Decisions need to be made about fabric and the length of the veil, and Jane approaches Lorraine and Debbie to try to get Debbie’s measurements.

But there are plenty of twists in this tale. Being part of Backtackers is a privilege, and men move into and out of the group as privileges are revoked or transfers occur. Can Jane win Lorraine and Debbie over? Can the prisoners work together for long enough to make and embroider a wedding dress and veil?

I really enjoyed this novel: watching Derek become more self-aware, realising that the other inmates had more in common with him than he thought. There are a few laugh out loud moments as well as both romance and tragedy as this story unfolds.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Review to be posted at Dear Author (via Jayne) in the week of May 17 2021


What a wonderful book. I read the blurb, thought it might be cute and funny but the reality blew me away. Yes there is humor but there is heart and soul and connection. I loved the Australianisms and learned a few new ones. This is a book I began reading and would  come up for air after being immersed in it for hours and only then because something yanked me out. It's the type of book I love in which I honestly didn't know what was going to happen next but I just <i>had</i> to know what happened next. It has shot to the top of my best books of the year and I'm so happy I read it.


The omniscient narration in present tense shook me up a bit until I got used to it but soon I didn't even notice it as I entered the world of Yarrandarrah Prison and the men who are there. These are not innocent angels, mistakenly done up and sentenced to years behind bars. Some are murderers, arsonists, or thieves. When a riot breaks out, some act badly and a murder occurs. There is tension all the time as the smallest mistake or lapse in attention or judgement can lead to a beating or worse. 



Derek has spent his five years (out of seven) in the system trying to stay in the background, be unnoticed, not draw attention as that will usually get a man in trouble. He writes a letter a week to his daughter (who has never answered), works in the prison hospital, but lives for the three hours a week when he takes part in a prison sewing group called Backtackers. When his (ex) sister-in-law shows up and drops the news on him that his only daughter is getting married and that Derek better come up with a good gift since he won't be there on the day, Derek is flummoxed. Anything he could buy with the little he has saved up wouldn't make up for five years of absence. Then it hits him, he'll make something for her. Something to show how much he loves her even if he can't walk her down the aisle. 


Only ... the woman who runs Backtackers and Derek's fellow stitchers aren't impressed with what he plans. A suggestion is made and before Derek knows it, the ball is rolling and the men are all in. Patterns are examined, fabric and trimmings are debated, and Jane is dispatched to visit Debbie to get measurements. The idea of these hardened crims fingering satin swatches, deciding against fiddly lace, and deliberating about how the train ought to be held up while Debbie is dancing at the reception had me giggling. 


But nothing ends up going quite to plan as old feelings are still raw; local politics appear ready to shut down something the prisoners, as well as the townsfolk, depend on; and the dress is soon taking on a far deeper meaning for all the men. 


I've never been in a prison nor (that I'm aware of) know anyone who has been a prisoner. But after reading this book, I have a vivid idea what it might be like. Yes, there's the usual watch yourself in the shower but also be careful and correctly read the feeling of the room. Pay attention to avenues of exit, what you say, how loudly you say it, and note who holds the power. The role that poverty, addiction, and violence play in the lives of who ends up incarcerated is shown rather than just pontificated about. The relief that the stitchers feel to be in a place where they can relax just that little bit - though not entirely even there - is palpable. 


The idea of men discussing the bits and pieces of a wedding dress might at first be amusing (as I admitted it was) but before long not only <i>that</i> it was important but <i>how</i> it was important is clear. For one man it might help him in his bid for early parole and perhaps open a world for when he gets out. Another man, who has been the main user of the sewing machine, must yield its use (and thus some of his rank in the group) to and teach Derek how to manage slippery duchess silk under the feeder foot. A third will use his skill in embroidery for the veil. And Derek will pour his love for his daughter into it. 


If everything had come up roses and there had been a heartfelt reunion between father and daughter, the book would have been good but what elevates it to great is how many things go wrong, how tragedy can strike, how long held resentments can't be waved away, and how more than one of the men will need to do a lot of introspection and self discovery. There were moments when it all appeared to be headed to hell in a handcart and I thought well, the angst is about to drag it down to a literary fiction book where we know everyone will suffer horribly at the very least. 


Then something wonderful happens. Things come together in quiet but believable ways. Some old hurts are avenged, others are soothed, a lovely wedding takes place, and a few truths come out. No, not everything is perfect. Derek is still in prison to serve out the rest of his sentence but he's a bit more self aware. The idea of prison for redemption rather than just punishment is shown as a reality for some even if they know they're never going to be released. The stitchers all give something of themselves - even if just encouragement and opinions - to getting the dress finished and they help create a thing of beauty out of the darkness of what brought them to be where they are. The book isn't dark or depressing - well, most of it isn't, it treats the frailties of the characters with compassion and understanding, and the final scene had me laughing and shedding a tear or two myself. A
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A funny and heartfelt look at life in minimum security. Derek is doing 7 years for stealing 750k from the golf club he worked at, he's never once had a visitor until his sister in law comes to tell him his daughter is getting married in 7 months time.

Derek only has $200 to his name but looks to his prison sewing circle, Backtackers, for inspiration for a gift. After much peer pressure, he decides to enlist all their help to make her a dress for her big day.

Contains a cast of absolute characters, it explores whether prison is for punishment or rehabilitation and teaches us to take people at face value for we don't know what story they may have to tell
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Absolutely LOVED this book.
A real feel good story.  It has a really positive, uplifting feel.  People watching out for and helping others, seeking to better themselves.  You’d really like to believe these sorts of programmes exist in prisons to help with rehabilitation.
Highly recommend this and it’ll be a great hand sell title.
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I read The Fence by Meredith Jaffe a few years back and loved it, so I was glad to be offered the opportunity to read her latest book, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison.
As the title suggests, the story is mostly set in prison, where a man by the name of Derek is doing time for embezzlement after stealing funds from his local golf club. A bit of a back story about Derek - he was a math teacher, and was married to Lorraine for many years, but is now divorced from 'Lol' as he calls her. Together, they have a  daughter Debbie, but thanks to Lorraine, she hasn't spoken or seen Derek in about 5 years, even though he writes to her on a weekly basis. 
When Derek finds out from his sister-in-law that Debbie is getting married, he is sad that he won't be able to walk her down the aisle on her big day. 
He wants to show Debbie that he still loves and cares about her, and tries to come up with an idea to prove it to his daughter.
The idea presents itself one day as Derek attends the weekly sewing circle class - he will make a wedding dress for Debbie! 
His stitching mates offer to help him out and it isn't long before they put their talents to work to come up with a beautiful dress. But there are dramas both inside and outside of the prison and the dress may not be able to get finished after all. 
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I would've loved to have a few extra chapters or even scenes shown from Debbie's perspective, but apart from that, it's a ripping read.
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