October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Life behind bars can really change a person. Ray Materson took up embroidery. “Initially I was concerned” about others’ reactions, he admits. “Nobody embroiders in prison.” Soon, however, fellow inmates, paying with cigarettes, were commissioning sports logos and flags.

The art world signed on too. Exhibited at New York City’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, Materson’s miniatures fetch up to $4,000. Materson, 48, who was paroled in 1995, chronicles his redemption in a memoir called Sins and Needles, written with his wife of nine years, Melanie, a musician who wrote him in prison after seeing his work.

An ex-cocaine addict, Materson was sentenced in 1988 to 15 years in a Somers, Conn., state prison for armed robbery. Wanting a University of Michigan logo for the 1989 Rose Bowl, he recalled his paternal grandmother’s embroidery. With thread he got by unraveling a cellmate’s sock, he created a Michigan visor. He had found his medium and a lifeline. It was, says Melanie, 44, “a healthy response to a bad situation.” Living near Albany, N.Y., with Melanie and children David, 7, Savannah, 4, and stepson John, 18, Materson, who works with troubled kids, retains some tics from his cellblock days. “I look at socks,” he says, “and think, ‘Hmm, do I need that color?’ ”

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