Penn State student delivers protective masks through entrepreneurship

Stephanie Koons
July 07, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Gracie Hamilton, a rising senior in Penn State’s College of Education, didn’t have any overarching goals when she started her online sewing business two years ago. She had started making scrunchies for her friends for Christmas and thought, “Alright, maybe I can sell these.” Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has transferred her sewing skills to creating masks that protect the health of her family, friends and larger community.

“I always wanted to give back to the community,” said Hamilton, who is from Ulysses in Potter County but currently residing in State College. “As more people hear about us, they tell their friends and family. It just kind of keeps growing.”

An early education major, Hamilton started her college journey at Penn State DuBois, where she played volleyball and basketball, and started sewing scrunchies by hand during bus rides to and from games.  Now, her online store, named Gracie Mae’s, sells everything from wedding party scrunchies and sports team scrunchies to dog bandanas and headbands for mothers and daughters. When the coronavirus crisis hit Pennsylvania and Gov. Tom Wolf mandated mask-wearing in indoor public spaces in mid-April, Hamilton was in a strong position to be of service to her community.

 “My business is based on sewing … so why not help people?” she said.

Daphne Zelinka

Daphne Zelinka, of Westfield, Pennsylvania, sports a mask designed by Penn State College of Education student Gracie Hamilton.

IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Gracie Hamilton

Initially, the mask-making project didn’t go quite as smoothly as Hamilton expected. She didn’t have elastic for the ear loops so she started making them with tie wands — which took about 30 minutes per mask. Eventually, with the help of donations, she got hold of elastic and shortened the sewing time in half. Her mother, an elementary teacher, assisted Hamilton in her efforts.

“We worked day and night to get all these masks made,” Hamilton said. “There were weekends where we’d just sit for over 12 hours and sew all weekend.”

With a population of 621 in the 2010 census, Ulysses, as Hamilton described it, is a community where “everyone knows where people live.” She reached out on Facebook to find out who needed masks and offered to either mail them or set them on people’s porches. She also hangs masks on a bulletin board in the town’s post office and sets boxes of masks in the local Dollar General store.

Having already made 700-800 masks just for the community, Hamilton then expanded her reach by advertising the masks on her business page and since then, has made about 1,300 masks --  including for U.S. Air Force members stationed in Texas and former Potter County residents who moved to various places including Georgia.

Kourtnee Kosa/Austin Burdick

Austin Burdick and Kourtnee Kosa, of Gold, Pennsylvania, celebrate Kosa's recent graduation from Corning Community College wearing masks designed by Penn State student Gracie Hamilton.

IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Gracie Hamilton

Given the gravity of the coronavirus crisis, Hamilton said she didn’t want to assign monetary value to the masks.

“During a time like this, I’d feel bad about charging people for something that is so needed,” she said.

On the Gracie Mae’s website, visitors who choose to have their masks mailed to them are asked to pay for shipping, Hamilton said, “but if not, that’s fine, donations help with that.”

Overall, Hamilon said her community has been extremely compliant with public health guidelines.

“In my small town, everyone had a mask on,” she said.

Since masks are currently part of the public dress code, Hamilton tries to help people stay stylish and express themselves while wearing a face covering.

Gracie Mae's

Gracie Mae, who is majoring in early childhood education at Penn State, offers protective masks in a variety of designs on her online store, Gracie Mae's.

IMAGE: Gracie Hamilton

“Every day at work, I try to match my mask to my outfit,” she said. “And you have to wear [a mask] every day so why not make it fun and stylish?”

On her website, Hamilton displays masks in designs such as cow print and orange gingham. She also accepts requests for personalized designs such as favorite animals or sports teams. Recently, she fulfilled a request for Pokemon masks for a kid’s birthday party.

Hamilton, who plans to keep her business as a side job when she eventually teaches in an elementary school, said that the COVID mask project has enabled her to push beyond her comfort zone. One situation in which she was put to the test was when she had to complete an order for 300 masks — which happened to be the weekend before finals week.

“It’s taught me that I’m more capable than what I think I am,” she said. “If I can put my mind to it, I can do it.”

“We Are” stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment.

Last Updated August 27, 2020