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Residential Programs and Services' sewing room: IU’s hidden gem

May 4, 2016

In a large room in Foster Quad's basement, four women huddle around a massive table strewn with piles and piles of cream-colored fabric. Industrial rolls of fabric in the same color are stacked high at the room's entrance. Stepping farther into the room reveals several sewing machines shrouded by hanging racks full of newly folded draperies. These are their final products.

sewing drapes

Seamstress Blithe Egan uses a surging machine to sew a set of drapes. | Photo By CHRIS MEYER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

In the Residential Programs and Services’ sewing room, the small but mighty group of seamstresses work to create handmade textile products for the university. This includes window treatments for residence halls and apartment housing, linens for staff or guest apartments, and any other sewing project that may arise.

A few years ago, the women recreated public art banners that once again hang in the Musical Arts Center. They’ve also created accent pillows for the president’s house and tablecloths for RPS banquet halls.

More recently, the sewing room was tasked with creating an alternative uniform for an RPS employee whose religious beliefs conflicted with the provided uniform. To solve the issue, the sewing room staff made long skirts for her to wear on the job. Their next task is to repair the drapes in the Lilly Library.

These unpredictable needs would be much more complicated to fulfill without the existence of the RPS sewing room and the women who staff it, but many people aren’t even aware it exists.

"They are good, hard-working women who take a lot of pride in the work that they do," said Maggie Talmage, assistant director of RPS Facilities Management. "They truly feel like they are a service to the IU community."

In fact, the majority of their work revolves around the students, outfitting resident rooms with window treatments to create a comfortable, safe and functional environment. With over 7,800 residential rooms on IU’s campus, this is a daunting task. The current Read Hall renovation alone has the women turning out nearly 700 new draperies, Talmage estimates.

Kathy Duncan, the lead seamstress who has spent almost 32 years with the university and 20 of those in the sewing room, works with the design team for such projects. The designers find and select the style and product they think is most appropriate, and Duncan determines the measurements and quantity needed to complete the project.

When the fabric is ordered, it comes into the sewing room in giant industrial fabric rolls. The sewing room staff cuts and sews the fabric into draperies, following certain industry specifications provided to them based on the project.

Having the sewing room on campus allows IU to have access to high-quality products while still being green and saving money. There is a tremendous amount of wear and tear on furniture, window treatments and linens on campus. The sewing room staff, along with the upholstery shop staff, is able to repair and refurbish a good deal of interior-design-related features, resulting in less waste and fewer dollars spent on replacements.

However, despite their incredible skills and all that they do for the university, the women in the sewing room remain extremely humble. They are happy to work behind the scenes in their sewing sanctuary, adding their own handmade touches to campus.

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