John Gout, the Quilting Inmate
In the laundry room of the South Idaho Correctional Institution near Boise, inmate John Gout and Laundry Officer Michael O'Donnell display a quilt made by Gout as a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House. Photo courtesy of the Idaho Department of Correction.
Anyone familiar with color knows that blue and orange are opposite one another on the color wheel and are, therefore, complementary. That’s a good thing, because blue and orange comprise a major portion of the color palette for quilter John Gout. Most of the fabric used in his quilts comes from “prison blues” (denim blue jeans) and bright orange offender transport jumpsuits. Gout is an inmate at the minimum-security South Idaho Correctional Institution (SICI) near Boise, where he’s serving a 10-year sentence for felony burglary.
He’s also a quilter. Several years ago, a prison official (who had attended a charity event where a blue jean quilt was auctioned off) suggested that making quilts might be something Gout could try as a means of serving the community. “I taught myself how to do it,” he says. “My first quilt was just eight-inch squares of denim.”
Gout knows his way around a sewing machine, having grown up selling them in his family’s sewing machine shop in Salt Lake City during the 1950s. He learned to sew by altering clothing for his sister, whose small stature made her a difficult fit. In prison, he perfected his sewing skills and learned to use a variety of machines, from straight stitch sewing machines to overlocking sergers.
Gout is the head tailor at SICI, where one of his main jobs is outfitting fellow inmates with denim jeans hemmed to size, since all new pants are issued the same length. He saves the scraps, and during the past couple of years he has used them to make over 30 quilts.
He also uses fabric from worn-out jeans and jumpsuits. “We have 650 inmates here at the prison and since each one of them has several pairs of jeans, I always have a ready supply of good material,” Gout says. “Mostly I use the back side of the pants leg, which doesn’t get so much wear.” The prison provides him batting, and for backing, he uses twin sheets. “All of my quilts are 99” x 66”—twin sheet size. I fold over the back to make the binding.”
The quilt tops are constructed using a 1938 Brother industrial single-needle sewing machine in the prison laundry room. “I work my regular eight hours, and then, I usually work on my quilts for two or three hours a day,” he says. “It occupies a lot of my time, and that’s a good thing when you’re in here.” After he completes a quilt top and adds the batting and backing, he uses an upholstery needle to tie it with yarn or embroidery floss.
All of his patterns are rendered in squares or rectangles and he plots the designs out on a piece of typing paper before starting to sew. Gout once created a pattern of a turkey inspired by a picture he saw in a Field and Stream magazine, and he has made a house quilt, an alphabet quilt, and even, a flower quilt.
All of his handiwork has been donated to local charities, schools, and service organizations for fundraisers. Many of the quilts have raised money for cancer research. A former laundry officer at the prison who was also a middle school wrestling coach, asked Gout to make quilts for each middle school in the Boise area with the school’s name and mascot in block letters. The quilts were raffled off to benefit the schools’ athletics programs.
Most recently, Gout made eight quilts that were given to Boise’s Ronald McDonald House. One of those features the words BSU BRONCOS, a tribute to Boise State University (whose colors just happen to be orange and blue). This quilt, autographed by school athletes, is to be auctioned off, while the other seven were given to families staying at the house.
“I love quilting. I guess you could say I’ve gotten addicted to it,” he says. “I’m happy to have an opportunity to create something to give back to the community. When I get out of prison in February 2011, I’m going to buy a sewing machine, get some material from a thrift store, and keep on quilting!”
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