Area seamstress works her magic square by square

Mary Hoepf of Republic is 80-something years old and, for more than 30 of those years, she has been making dozens of quilts. The pieces are stitched by machine, but she does the quilting by hand.

“Everybody asks me how many I’ve made, but I don’t keep track of it. … I’m not that much of a bookkeeper,” Hoepf said. “It keeps me busy. I try to make them all different.”

Her sewing machine is set up on a dining room table where windows bring in natural daylight. The machine can do embroidery patterns, which Hoepf has applied to some of the quilt squares before chain-stitching together in rows. A collection of books and individual patterns gives her plenty of ideas to choose from and specific instructions for each.

A pattern called “Boston Commons” is Hoepf’s current project.

The directions list the amount of each material to buy for the size of the quilt. The instructions also suggest assigning a number to each fabric and placing the cut squares in a small bag with that number on it.

“You go by numbers. There’s 35 different colors. You pick your own colors and they tell you how much they are,” Hoepf said.

The rows are joined to form four large triangles that are sewn together to form the quilt top. Most of Hoepf’s quilts are queen size. With no table large enough to spread out the finished quilt, she lays it out on the floor. A length of quilt batting and the fabric for the back side of the quilt must be cut to the correct size.

The next step is to join the layers together by hand. Hoepf uses a quilting hoop to secure a small area of the quilt as she adds stitching in various patterns. Several people have hired her to construct specific quilts, but she has gone beyond the orders to make many more.

Enjoyment, she said, is her motivation.

“I think I started around 1980. My daughter gave me a pillow (kit) one time for my birthday. That was the start of it. I always did a lot of sewing for the kids – the girls and the boys, too,” Hoepf recalled.

With quilting, she could make beautiful items that are practical. Her quilts are sturdy enough to be machine washed in a front-loading washer. Because Tiffin no longer has a fabric store, Hoepf purchases new material “any place I see it and like it.”

Some brilliant prints came home with her from a trip to Hawaii.

Hoepf has made enough to give one quilt and one throw to each member of the family. That may not sound impressive, but she and husband, Walter, have 15 children, more than 30 grandchildren and stepgrandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

She said she is careful not to show favoritism.

“I put them in garbage bags and numbered the garbage bags. Then they had to draw a number. That’s how they got theirs. Everybody got one at the same time,” Hoepf said. “They’re all good kids. … We were blessed with good kids.”

The remaining quilts are stacked in a glass-sided cabinet her husband made. Hoepf has sold some of them for up to $1,000, depending on the handwork involved. She also made a special sampler quilt hand-embroidered with her wedding date and the birthdates of the Hoepf children.

“This one’s not for sale,” she said.

The quilt in her bedroom is the log cabin pattern done in a variety of red and white prints. Another spread is appliqued with red and blue flowers. Pink and green were chosen for a broken star pattern. Pinwheel, checkerboard and stripe designs are accented with delicate outlining and detailed stitches. Quilting is a good way to pass the dark winter evenings, although Hoepf said she works on quilts all year, whenever she feels like it.

At one time, Hoepf and her husband did a lot of traveling, but now they stay closer to home. The quilts remind them of good times in the past as well as new arrivals in their large family, she said.