Shoaf turns sewing talent toward massive mask-making endeavour

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 30, 2020

SALISBURY — Selfless acts may seem few and far between these days, but Cathy Shoaf has been busy doing good deeds thousands of times over.

Shoaf, who’s always been a crafty person, started what’s become a massive mask-making endeavor with family members and two ladies who asked her for a favor. And she hasn’t looked back since. She has sewn masks for local schools, her Wilmington daughter’s customers, local businesses and “really whoever asked.”

Her mask-wearers try to pay her for her work and, when she’s allowed it, Shoaf has received payment ranging from more fabric and supplies to a tomato plant. She estimates that her manufacturing operation, which has mostly operated in a corner of her bedroom, has created north of 3,100 masks.

“I’ve just always been a person who could do anything if I set my mind to it,” Shoaf said.

Shoaf’s mask-making operation started with some instructions on the website of Hobby Lobby, but her talent for sewing comes from her mother, who was a seamstress. When she was old enough to work, Shoaf said, she also took a job in a sewing factory. Now, she’s retired after working for 30 years at Genesis Health Care, which operates short- and long-term living centers, including assisted and senior care. When COVID-19 made its arrival in North Carolina, she wanted to find a way to help but going back to work in health care wasn’t an option because of health issues. So, she put her talents to work sewing.

She estimates that about 1,300 of her total were distributed in the Wilmington area, where her daughter Leslie Tew lives. Shoaf made some for the general public there as well as for her daughter’s clients and their spouses. People often left her fabric, but one gesture was particularly meaningful.

“Down there, people would bring me material, and one lady even brought me a tomato plant that I’ve got in the back yard now. Another person brought some soap,” Shoaf said. “But one day while we were sewing, my son-in-law came in and said, ‘y’all got a bag of material here.’ And when he opened it up, it was a soiled polo shirt and an old garden flag that was ripped and part of a blanket rag that was folded up.

“And it just broke my heart. It came from somebody that was appreciative of that mask that wanted to contribute whatever she had and this might have been all she had. It was worth more to me than a yard of material.”

Whether she knows it or not, Shoaf started helping the Rowan-Salisbury School System in April. Mindy Muire, a school social worker at West Rowan Middle, lives in Shoaf’s neighborhood, saw on social media that Shoaf had a basket of masks placed in front of her house. She would end up picking up one for herself and several co-workers who were doing work over the summer.

Then Shoaf decided to make a batch just for schools, starting with Hurley Elementary School. And it was a batch of hundreds, said Principal Jennifer Brown. The masks are mostly used for students who do not have one, forget to bring one or when a disposable mask breaks, Brown said. The school has medical-style masks, but they are not always comfortable to wear, she said.

While Shoaf was making masks for Hurley, she also asked Muire where she worked and offered to make hundreds for her school — West Rowan Middle. While the school system provides masks for students, they don’t always fit quite right and students sometimes forget them, Muire said. So, Shoaf made some that fit students’ faces better.

“You think of this day and time, unfortunately, selfless acts are few and far between, but there are still a lot of good people in the world and this is just an unconditional act that she did,” Muire said.

Both Muire and Brown said that students have done well in adhering to mask-wearing rules. Though, educators have to remind students to pull masks up to cover their noses at times.

Making thousands of masks can be tiring work, with some of Shoaf’s days starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. So, she has taken some breaks, using the time off to straighten up her garden or take care of other tasks around the house. But she still enjoys the work. In one corner of her bedroom, she has a few small tables, fabric and other materials, containers for completed masks and a trusty Singer sewing machine. She’s even got another sewing machine ready in case her current one dies. A cabinet nearby holds other fabric in case she needs more. Shoaf usually turns on the TV when she’s sewing, not necessarily to watch. Instead, it’s background noise for her work.

She joked that her husband is sometimes her meal service, making her some lunch or dinner while she’s working and when he’s home from working at Freightliner.

“I have really enjoyed this. This has been something where I feel like I’m making a difference,” she said.

But she doesn’t plan to stop yet. Shoaf has a supply already made and says she’s willing to continue making them for people, groups or schools who request them. To contact her, email