Devoted Quilter Creates Thousands of Lifesaving Masks from Scraps

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Dottie Hoopingarner sews one of a thousand masks in her home quilting studio.

“Thank you,” people write. Sometimes they say more. Dottie Hoopingarner doesn’t ask for the kind words or for the tiny gifts. In fact, her best reward is when her husband brings in an empty table at the end of each day, cleared of the half dozen or more face masks she sews and makes available for free.

Since March, Dottie has sewn 1,900 pleated masks from materials she’s amassed from decades of quilting. The East Lansing octogenarian answered the call last spring when personal protective gear was in high demand and short supply as Covid-19 first ravaged Michigan. She saw it as a chance to do something for the greater good, to be generous. Plus, she simply had a lot of cotton fabric scraps in tons of patterns and colors.

“It’s a chance to use some of my creativity, and I just like the fact that masks are needed,” she said. “Also, I think if people see that others are willing to make and give them masks, maybe they will see how important it is to wear one.”

A colorful array of hand-made face masks, set out for the taking.

Piecing things together

Dottie started quilting in 1976. Her mother-in-law introduced her to the folk art, and she’s been sewing ever since. Quilting, she said, provides her with a form of expression. She also loves working with color and form and geometry.

“There’s just a beauty to it,” she said. “I especially like to make quilts as gifts for graduations and weddings. I’ve also made hundreds for interfaith and community groups.”

An East Lansing native, Dottie grew up on Snyder Road a couple blocks from Burcham Drive, and is a 1956 alumna of East Lansing Public Schools. She was in the last class of Trojans to graduate high school from the now-Hannah Community Center.

Dottie attended Michigan State University where she studied music. She met her husband there, and they both became public school music teachers in the Grand Rapids area. Fourteen years ago, they moved back to East Lansing, seeking a calm, neighborhood setting for their retirement years.

Almost immediately, the devoted quilter realized their new home was simply not big enough for her pastime. Her husband agreed to add square footage, and hired a contractor to build a room to house four deluxe sewing machines, tables and chairs, sewing tools and sundries, and brightly patterned yards, squares and scraps of quilting material.

“I’m a fabric magnet,” Dottie said. “I haven’t had to go and buy fabric to make masks. It’s all here.”

Dottie uses a simple pattern from Joann Fabric and Craft Store to create an average of six or more masks a day. She said each mask takes about 15 minutes to make. She’s ensconced in her quilting studio several times a week and constructs masks in an assembly line-fashion, breaking the steps down into cutting, pleating and sewing.

“I try to make some masks feminine and some masculine,” she said. “A man might not want to wear roses on his face. Right now, I’m using Christmas fabrics.”

Don and Dottie Hoopingarner in a festive holiday photo.

Dottie said initially, she sewed cloth masks for local hospitals, her church, and for family and friends. She also made batches for grocery store workers on the suggestion of her nephew. A doctor gave her the idea to set the masks out on a table in front of her home for people to take. The idea worked out well, particularly since the Dottie’s home is near the entrance to Harrison Meadows Park and attracts foot traffic en route to walking trails, a children’s playground, picnic and recreational athletic facilities, and passive nature areas.

As the weather cools and makes it more difficult to take the table in and out each day, Dottie said she’ll pivot toward making masks for initiatives supported through her church. In the past week, she said, she sent a batch for distribution to the Edgewood Village housing community.

“I feel gratified to think that people take and use them,” said Dottie of her creations. “I’ve been keeping my eye out to see if I spot any of my masks on someone, but I don’t go out much. I did see one man a while back wearing one, though.”

Dottie Hoopingarner and her husband Don plan to set and clear the table with masks each day until the snow flies. If you are in need of a mask or two, you’ll find them for free at the end of the drive at 1620 Roxburgh in East Lansing.

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