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Fashion design students’ service project, inspired by professor, benefits Riley patients

Mar 10, 2022

Students in the Indiana University Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design sometimes wonder how they can give back to the community using the skills they learn in fashion school, sophomore Sofia Winski said.

A professor checks a student's work on a tote bag
More than 40 Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design students made tote bags and pillow blankets for Riley Hospital for Children.Photo by B. Wells Douglas

Winski and more than 40 other students across three classes in the fashion design program learned how their skills translate to community service with a hands-on project to benefit patients at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health in Indianapolis. They made reversable tote bags and pillow blankets for the children over the course of two weeks.

“Just seeing everything all together in the end, I was proud of my classmates because we made a lot in a pretty short amount of time,” said Winski, a fashion design major from Chesterton, Indiana.

The students made 70 tote bags and 38 pillow blankets in October, and they were delivered Jan. 28 to the Riley Cheer Guild, which provides comfort and cheer to patients and caregivers. In the spring semester, a new class of 17 students made 18 tote bags and 18 pillow blankets for Riley.

The idea for the service-learning project resulted from the personal experience of Bo Choi, a visiting faculty member in fashion design. She spent about five months at Riley in 2021, where her toddler son, Teddy, was being treated for a rare type of leukemia that has a low survival rate: juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia.

Teddy, whose health has improved, was at Riley from May until Sept. 10. To help Choi cope during this stressful and emotional time, Riley art therapist and Cheer Guild member Emily Allbery suggested she try art therapy. Choi said not only was the art therapy helpful, but it sparked the idea for the service-learning project.

A student uses a sewing machine to make a pillow blanket
A pillow blanket with the word smile and farm animals

Photos by B. Wells Douglas

Eskenazi School faculty have tried to incorporate service learning over the years, said Deb Christiansen, the school’s executive director of academics. The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning connected the school with Middle Way House in Bloomington – which helps those who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault – for its first service-learning opportunity a couple of years ago. Choi, Christiansen and Lori Frye, the co-area coordinator for fashion design, thought helping children at Riley seemed like another good opportunity for students, Christiansen said.

The trio brainstormed to come up with items that would fit Riley’s needs and give their students experience with technical design, construction and production. The materials for the tote bags and pillow blankets were funded by a teaching grant from the IU ServeDesign Center. During the October project period, teaching assistants such as Thomas Emoff cut the fabric and organized and prepared the cotton canvas, cotton broadcloth and polyester fleece, coordinating colors and prints. Additional pre-work included two classes making embroidered embellishments.

Emoff, a senior fashion design major from Florida, participated in the Middle Way House service-learning project as a sophomore, so he understood the importance of the Riley project and how it could benefit the students as well the young patients.

“It’s the idea of support and giving in society, and making something for somebody is an act of service,” he said.

The project also was a good example of the close-knit studio culture between professors and students in the fashion design program, Emoff said.

“That moment where everybody was in the studio for a whole week doing a common goal, it was really nice, it was very happy,” he added.

A student works on a tote bag
The service-learning project resulted in more than 100 items given to the Riley Cheer Guild.Photo by B. Wells Douglas

Christiansen, Choi and Frye taught the students how to make the tote bags and pillow blankets, and were on hand for troubleshooting. The students had two to three class periods over a week to make at least one tote bag and one pillow blanket. The items featured patterns and embroidery of animals, flowers, comic book characters, hearts and other images and words.

The students were genuinely engaged with the work, Christiansen said.

“They were excited to see completed, useful products that could also make a difference in a child’s Riley visit and experience,” she added.

Akshaya Singhal, a junior international student from Bahrain majoring in fashion design, said she was excited to do something for children, as well as support Choi and Teddy. She said the project was also relaxing, because it wasn’t for a grade but for a good cause.

“It was the most fun,” she said. “We were all in the studio. We were all constructing; we were all making things together that would bring joy and smiles to kids.”

Singhal made three tote bags and two pillow blankets, one of which was a collaboration with Winski. She said the project taught her new skills, such as embroidery, and construction processes that differ from what she uses with apparel.

Sophomore Jack Koceja said this project’s connection to Choi and her son gave the fashion design students valuable perspective. He also had a personal connection to the project: a friend who was a patient at Riley the same time Teddy was there.

Koceja, a Bloomington, Indiana, native with an interest in sustainable fashion, said he learned general construction of a tote bag and how flat pieces of fabric interact to create a 3D object. More importantly, he added, the project made him think about the emotional impact that the act of making something can have on a person.

“The fact that we used comics and happy and cheerful fabrics really was important to the children,” Koceja said. “I did a shark tote bag. A 5-year-old, maybe their favorite thing in the world is sharks. You never know if the one Power Rangers tote bag you made is going to make some kid’s day.”


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Kirk Johannesen

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