Skip to content


Meet Mary Inchauste: Architect, Mom and Sew Powerful Purse Maker


Mary Inchauste is an architect with a unique design aesthetic. In today's podcast, Mary shares the life challenges that made her appreciate education as the pathway to success. As a woman in a field dominated by men at the time she entered architecture, Mary became an unwitting trailblazer, mentoring and coaching younger women and students interested in pursuing a career in design and architecture. Listen as Mary shares her experiences, and her passion and appreciation for Sew Powerful.


University of Notre Dame, women architects, Indianapolis airport design, Indiana Architecture Foundation, Blackburn Scholarship Foundation, Sew Powerful, purses, CSO Architects


We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.

CSO, Architects, Indianapolis, IN


The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.


Host: Jan Cancila

Guest: Mary Inchauste, Associate Principal, CSO Architects, Indianapolis, IN


Jan Cancila, Host 00:04

Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.


Jan 00:19

Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. Today we are speaking with Mary Inchauste. And you're wondering how I'm able to pronounce her name when no one else seems to be able to do that. And that's because Mary was kind enough to give me the phonetic spelling. So, let's all say it together: "In-Chow-Stay." It's easy. Just ignore all those letters in there. In-Chow-Stay. Mary Inchauste, welcome Mary. How are you today?


Mary Inchauste , Guest 00:47

Doing great. Happy to be here.


Jan 00:49

So I can see in the background that you're not in a sewing studio. Where are you?


Mary 00:56

I am here at my office, it is Sunday. So, it's quiet here. But you see in the background, we have a very interesting office space that used to be a Bally's Fitness Center that we reclaimed. And you can see our workstations behind us. So, what I do during the day, as an architect.


Jan 01:15

You work as an architect, and I see on your shirt, it says CSO. What does that stand for?


Mary 01:21

Yes, CSO. It was Cooler, Schubert, Ols were the founding architects that started the firm more than 50 years ago. So we are a third generation firm, eighty-five people located in Indianapolis, Indiana, and we do commercial work. So not like Sleepless in Seattle. We are working on serious, fairly large commercial projects. That's our workflow so.


Jan 01:45

And Mary, you worked on a very significant project for five years. Tell us about that.


Mary 01:51

Oh, yes, I was assigned to the design team for the new Indianapolis airport, which opened in 2008. So it was a completely brand new airport out of the ground, really everything parking garages, terminal, and it continues to win awards. It's a small airport, but I'm very, very proud of that particular project.


Jan 02:13

What was your role on the project?


Mary 02:15

There were four senior project architects on that. So, my role was really pretty much anything from the walls in. I was part of the art steering committee. Worked with the commissioned artists on their installations. Worked on all the finishes that you would see, all the build up behind the scenes, all the furniture, helped coordinate the signage. So, an airport has an awful lot of parts in it. Some avoid most of the passengers don't even know about, like, we have a chapel, we have a police station, maybe people would know about the USO offices, but there's just a lot in the airport.


Jan 02:50

So, listeners, you should Google the Indianapolis airport and look at all the artwork and the furniture and the design. And you can then say, “I know who designed that.”


Mary 03:04

Many, many people that made that happen, but I did have a pretty good hand in it.


Jan 03:08

Well, that's amazing. Mary, you shared with me that you've been a single mom since 1983. That sounds like it might have been a difficult situation for you. But you had your education to fall back on, right?


Mary 03:24

Yes, I went through some pretty trying times, raising my kids and sort of picking up the pieces from that. And if I had not had an education, I can't even begin to imagine how I would have done it. So, I've always been grateful for my career as an architect. Without it, I would never have been able to work on so many amazing and interesting things. And I would not have earned a living to help my children. So, I do everything I can to help others.


Jan 03:53

And tell us a little bit about your education. Where did you go to school and get your degrees?


Mary 03:58

I graduated from University of Notre Dame in 1978. I was one of the very first women to start there as a freshman and graduate and obviously one of the very few women architects at that time. I'm very proud of having gone to Notre Dame and I studied in Rome, I've had a chance to live in other foreign countries over the years. It's not the easiest career, but I've really loved it all the time that I've been working.


Jan 04:25

Well, I want to share with you. I graduated from high school a few years before you and when we were seniors, we took an aptitude test. And my number one recommended career was to be an architect.


Mary 04:39



Jan 04:40

Honestly, it would have been a fantastic fit for me, but at the time, the career options for women were teacher, secretary, nurse, or you know get married and start having kids. So, I initially thought well, I'm going to be a school teacher because of the three that would appeal to me the most and I ended up doing something totally different. But I always look at buildings and go, “Oh, I wonder if I could have been a part of that?” So, I'm very excited to talk with you. And to hear about the trailblazing work that you've done as a woman in architecture fairly early on. I mean, you must not have had many women peers, is that true?


Mary 05:20

I'm not even sure there was ever a woman older than I was at any time in any office that I work with. Now, there are a lot of young women in the profession, but in my age group, it was pretty slim. Very few women.


Jan 05:38

See I could have been one of those older women, but I wasn't brave enough to try it. So, I admire you for doing that.


Mary 05:45

Well, I chose to be an architect, I used to just love sewing, creating patterns, making stuff. And I don't really see that as a way to have a career. So, I thought, well, if I can visualize things to make clothing that fits on a round body from flat fabric, and so on, I can do architecture. I thought… I have that ability. So.


Jan 06:09

I also want to talk about your youth a little bit because that somehow transitions into how you developed your love of sewing. What was it like for you growing up as a child?


Mary 06:20

I'm the oldest of nine. There are nine siblings in 11 years with one set of twins. So as the oldest, you know, you're kind of the second mom and involved a lot. And I just loved sewing, I used to sneak into my mother's sewing room, get in big trouble for messing with her sewing machine. Finally, when I was like six or seven, she just gave up. And by the time I was eight, I was sewing my own clothes. And she was pretty busy. So I was pretty unattended, kind of self-taught until 4-H and I took a lot of sewing lessons at the Singer sewing store. And really, I think that those that sewing experience was very, very helpful. Because I had to be a self-starter and there wasn't a lot of supervising and what it was doing and so I had to read the patterns. And if it didn't work out, I couldn't give up I'd have to really work through it. But I always loved it and still do and still sew a lot.


Jan 07:19

You mentioned earlier that you have children.


Mary 07:23

I have two daughters that are grown. So, the older daughter is a plastic surgeon. She works in Seattle, Washington now, at a university. She's on the faculty and an attending physician. And then the other daughter is married and lives here in Indianapolis and she works as a commercial furniture sales rep. So more of in the design business. A lot more similar to what I do. She works for Herman Miller, if anyone's listening and knows.


Jan 07:53

Yeah, Herman Miller is very nice office furniture. Well, your daughter in Seattle, we ought to hook her into Sew Powerful some way since that's their headquarters too. So, any way, and rounding out your family is your pet. Who are we talking about here?


Mary 08:09

Oh, I have a sweet black cat named Velvet. I used to have two cats. Another one named Coco. So early on, I would post pictures of Coco who would sit on the fabric and the purses, and you know, really hardly would let me sew. Coco is not with me anymore. But Velvet's still hanging in there.


Jan 08:27

How old is Velvet?


Mary 08:29

Velvet is 17.


Jan 08:30

Oh my.


Mary 08:31

She's, she's a senior girl.


Jan 08:34

Yeah, but getting up there. I can relate to that. You told me that your passion is education and mentoring. Talk a little bit about that.


Mary 08:45

Well, I believe that so much came to me as a part of being able to go to school. I was very fortunate to go to a place like Notre Dame and I think we owe always to give back. And so, all of the years I've participated I was part of Indiana Architecture Foundation, which gives scholarships to our talented architects in the state of Indiana and helped with fundraising. I was president of that group for about seven years. I worked with Blackburn Scholarship Foundation, and while I was part of that group, I would always make doll clothes and, doll clothes - everyone loves doll clothes. If you make a beautiful set of doll clothes, it's always a great auction item, which is how I ended up finding Sew Powerful.


Jan 09:31

So you came in through the Pixie Faire door?


Mary 09:34

I was looking for shoes to make the shoes because you know you have to have the shoes to go with outfits.


Jan 09:41

Obviously. And did you find shoes?


Mary 09:45

They have lots of lovely, lovely patterns, including shoes.


Jan 09:49

So, you found the shoes but you also found Sew Powerful. What was your first impression when you came across Sew Powerful?


Mary 09:58

Well, I read their story many, many times. I kind of studied it, I didn't just jump into making the purses based on you know, kind of a, I mean it sounds good, but I really wanted to be putting my time towards a group. And what I liked about Sew Powerful, and I think what is outstanding is they're really behind the people who are on the trenches doing the job. We're not coming in and telling them how to do it or what to do, it's really much more of a grounds root support. So ultimately, that's sustainable too. As the local people become more and more skilled, it stays there. And they're the ones who are making it a success. And I think that's really important. I also feel that financial accountability is critical with a charity organization and Sew Powerful really gives virtually everything that they take in as a donation back to the group. It does not have a big overhead expense attached to it. So, when you contribute, it's going to the people that it's intended to go to, I think that's super important.


Jan 11:06

Absolutely. It's an all-volunteer organization. And Jason Miles, one of the co-founders committed that it always will be. There won't be a paid staff. And fortunately, we're able to tap into lots of expertise from actually all over the world to help run the organization. So that's great.


Mary 11:26

Really outstanding.


Jan 11:28

Yeah. And you know, your emphasis on education with the work that Sew Powerful does that enables girls to be educated, I can imagine that that was a really good fit for you.


Mary 11:41

Yes, I mean, I've donated time to varying universities, to jury studios, to mentor a thesis students, to help high school students, to do career days, as many things as I can find that would be inspiring for anyone else who's trying to come along. So, when I think about the sewing guild, and the ladies that are getting a chance, maybe for the first time in their life to earn a decent living to feel proud of what they do, no one can take away your education. And so, everything that's happening there, and Zambia is just so important for that community. And, and the way way it works is someone taught me, then I teach many people then those. It's kind of a chain. And I think that's just really an important part of Sew Powerful, and the group that's there and Zambia.


Jan 12:34

Yep, absolutely. Mary, why don't we take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about your design aesthetic and how that relates to the purses that you make. And a little bit more about your involvement here. So listeners, stay tuned. We'll be back with Mary in just a moment.


Jan 12:54

Have you gotten the second edition of the "We Are Sew Powerful" book? This updated version of the original bestseller, 4.9 out of five stars, by the way, is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon Miles. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen, and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order if you use and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful. And now back to our podcast.


Jan 13:58

Welcome back. We've been speaking with Mary Inchauste, and learning all about her fascinating career as an architect - as a trailblazing architect actually and be sure and Google Indianapolis Airport to see some of the work that Mary has done. In your notes that I read, you talk about the fabrics that you use to make purses which are atypical from what probably 99% of the rest of us are using. What fabrics do you use to make purses? Tell us about that.


Mary 14:35

Well, predominantly, my sewing is either clothing that I would wear for work. So, I didn't have a lot of quilting cottons or I would have more craft fabrics or commercial upholstery fabrics that were discontinued samples or were left over from something like making pillows. So, when I first started, I didn't really see as much of what I had an inventory in the purses that were posted on Facebook, but I just started working with my own skills and graphics and color, putting things together in a way that was parallel with what we do here as a designer. I'm not a quilter. I do, we would call them coverlets. Yeah, actually, I make things out of squares, and they turn out really lovely. But it's I don't think that anyone who's really a quilter would sees that the same way, so I don't have those kinds of fabrics. And I took inspiration from Shirley Utz early on, because she's just lovely at posting things. And it would have embroidered stitching. And I'm like, Oh, I have a gazillion spools of thread and all kinds of colors. So, I'll fire up and put decorative stitches on it, or I'll add ribbon or have a lot of braided trim that somehow I collected. And so, I try to combine that one of my signatures, which maybe people have seen from Facebook posts is I save all the selvages, which have writing or numbers or interesting things on it and incorporate some of that to make the back or use it as trim combined with ribbon or decorative stitches. Because, you know, I don't have an embroidery machine. And so I just kind of use the things that are available to me in a creative way.


Jan 16:21

I love the use of your selvage, and I mean, up until the time you were doing it, I was like cutting it off and throwing it away. But instead, you've made that part of the design element of the purse. I mean, it's just lovely.


Mary 16:36

Yeah, well, it would have been in the wastebasket. So, once I put it on there make it interesting. I also always try to make every purse a one-of-a-kind creation. And that's just me special maybe being part of such a large family where you don't feel special always you feel like one of the clan. And so, I don't ever make exactly the same purse the same way. So they'll always have a unique thing. And I try to hide little bits of surprises inside of it, which I know other people do, too. Maybe it's the peekaboo lining, or it's something about it that when the girls study their purses and look at it, and you don't have it at home, examining it. So I want it to be really, really nice and really pretty when they get their purse.


Jan 17:24

It sounds like you're able to use empathy, to imagine yourself in their shoes, because of the way you grew up in such a large family. Because many of these girls are in family with eight or nine siblings as well.


Mary 17:38

Well and maybe they lost their parents, or they're raising their own siblings, and I think just giving them something that's really special. It serves the purpose of helping them be in school, but it also serves a little different purpose in terms of that mentorship, also, in that sense that someone made this and it's yours and it's unique.


Jan 17:59

One of the tips that you have is that you iron and press every step of the way. Talk about why that's important.


Mary 18:09

Oh yeah, well, you know, I was trained very strict by the sewing teachers, I had 4-H and I'm kind of perfectionist in what I do anyway as a job. And so, I'm not the fastest purse maker, I select the fabrics really nicely, I use the interfacing as recommended, and I'm pressing every seam and you know, I was taught to, I don't know what you even call it. But you know, you press your seams after you've stitched them to set the stitches and so on. So, mine take take a little longer than some and you know, if the top stitching isn't right, it comes out and I fix it. I just think that's part of the pride when I send one and I want it to be really nice. That's not just about how many you make it's the quality of them and they need to last and be a treasure for whoever receives them.


Jan 19:02

And do you make more of the beginner purse or the intermediate purse? Which do you prefer?


Mary 19:07

Well I started out on the intermediate purse and made an awful awful lot of those and in some way they're kind of fun because you can combine more fabrics and you can have the lining inside is different, it really make them quite fun. But they take time and then I moved on to the newer purse design, which does lend itself a little bit better to some of the discontinued samples that I've been given where you have a big piece with maybe graphics on it so I do I still do both. And I do like the more simple pattern because I gain a little progress in time I can make that one more quickly.


Jan 19:46

Okay, I have to ask everyone this same question: Do you prefer to make the strap or to use webbing?


Mary 19:54

I do both. I have a little bin of straps in different colors that I can fish into. But here in Indianapolis, maybe because I don't always hit Joanne's on the right day, I don't always get all the colors that I'm looking for, so I also make the straps. I do it the method that's on Facebook, where you cut a four inch wide strip, and then fold it to the middle and interface them and topstitch them. So, I don't try to turn them inside out. I just can't quite get that to work as well.


Jan 20:29

I think most people who make the straps have moved on to that folding method. Well, and I'll just give HomeSew a little plug here. If you are on Team webbing as I am, you can buy your webbing from HomeSew and use the code SP10 for a 10% discount. And they have quite a nice selection of colors.


Mary 20:50

I'll have to give that a try.


Jan 20:52

Yeah, yeah, you should. And once you sign up, they'll mail you their catalogue. And it's got all kinds of things in there that you didn't even realize you needed. So, it's a fun little catalog to get. You have a "Go-To" saying. Can you share with us what that is?


Mary 21:11

Oh, yes. This is kind of what I tell myself. But I send it out to the universe that today is the first day of the rest of your life. So, no matter what happened yesterday, no matter where you are, no matter what it is, every day, you should get up and make that the best day that you can. And you always have the option of putting energy towards the future. We really only own today; we can't change the past and the future is undetermined. But today, if you do the best every day, and make the most of it, I think that's a really key way to be successful.


Jan 21:50

Another statement that you made is that you believe there is never a place too low, that one can't begin again to have hope and faith.


Mary 22:01

I do believe that. I don't know what else more to say about that. But there's never a moment too low not to have hope.


Jan 22:10

Well, and I think that for someone who embraces that, and has the empathy that you do, I would think that relates very well to the situation in Zambia. And we can hope and pray that the girls there can adopt that same philosophy.


Mary 22:28

Well, I hope what we're doing helps give them that hope and help give them the courage make one more good day, you know if that's if it's one day at a time.


Jan 22:38

Absolutely. Well, Mary, I want to thank you so much for your time. It's been so interesting to talk to you and hear about your career and your point of view on making these purses which I can appreciate your architectural background going into making these very beautiful purses that you do make and your your go-to saying, today is the first day of the rest of your life is very meaningful. So, thank you for your time.


Mary 23:09

Thank you very much. It was an honor to be part of.


Jan 23:13

Thank you.


Jan 23:17

If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at That's SEWPOWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.


Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at