Sunbonnet Sue

Sunbonnet Sue is an appliqued pattern based on drawings from the late eighteenth century that reached its peak of popularity during the decade of the thirties and has remained popular ever since. It is an appliqué pattern of a faceless little girl wearing a long dress. Her trademark sunbonnet can be traced to the Regency era in Britain, and it is so because that’s just where the pattern originates.

Sunbonnet Origins

The first illustrations that depict a little girl wearing a sunbonnet can be traced back to England in the late nineteenth century. They were used in children’s books written and illustrated by Kate Greenway.  These illustrations were sunbonnetcopied almost immediately and appeared in craft books as embroidery patterns for redwork.  Redwork had become very popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century since the advent of a colorfast red dye, and simple line drawings printed on plain muslin called “penny squares” could be purchased very cheaply and embroidered and joined together for quilts. The little girls in these early designs have faces, however. It is curious to notice that up to that time, the appearance of the human figure in quilts was seldom seen. A few quilts depict human figures, mainly in folk style quilts and a few appliqued quilts in the Baltimore style.

The popularity of the sunbonnet girl pattern kept raising during the early years of the twentieth century. From a couple of publications for embroidery and crafting, the little girl’s drawing became well known as two authors joined together to write a series of school children reading primer books. Sunbonnet became the illustrations for her first book in 1900 and five years later the male counterpart figure, Overall Sam (or Overall Bill) started appearing in what became a series of primers. By then, the two became so popular that they jumped from books onto not only quilt squares but also on postcards and calendars.

As the popularity continued in the first decades of the twentieth century, more publishing companies started offering Sunbonnet Sue as one of their patterns in their lines. Adaptations of the pattern appear in such well known sunbonnetpublications as Ladies’ Art Pattern company or Ladies Art Journal.  By 1930, different versions of the pattern with Sue receiving different names appear in just about every publishing catalog and pattern company.  In some cases, identical Sunbonnet blocks are repeated to create the quilt top or in more complicated ones, the little one is depicted in different poses doing chores or playing. These blocks are often times joined with sashing, although by then, she had become so popular that quilters were using the motif as part of other quilting patterns.  The fabrics of the period in bright pastels were the perfect match for the pattern and solids and prints with embroidery details became the standard for the appliqued quilt pattern.

Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam were joined by another faceless depiction of an older female character, a Southern lady in fine clothing with a parasol and no face. The pattern received different names according to the publishing company that produced the pattern, such as Parasol Lady, Southern Lady or Colonial Lady.

Unlike other patterns from the Depression Era, Sunbonnet remained popular during the entire twentieth century. It sunbonnetappears in child and baby quilts all through the mid wars period. And in the late seventies, a greeting card company started publishing cards with an updated version of the image, a little girl wearing a large bonnet with pioneer style clothing. Holly Hobby appeared not only in greeting cards, but also on everything from school bags to quilts. The trend continued as the quilt revival of the late twentieth century started. Sunbonnet not only was depicted doing the chores and games of a good little girl, but also being “naughty” or being involved in controversial issues of the time. Thus, Bad Sunbonnet Sue was born.

A group of quilters from Kansas created a quilt called  “The Sun Sets On Sunbonnet Sue” in 1979 housed at Michigan State University. These quilters were apparently tired of the quilting icon and in this quilt, they “killed” Sue in different ways.

Sunbonnet Today

Sunbonnet Sue patterns continue being published and she is still as popular as she ever was in children’s quilts, reproduction thirties quilts, and as an embroidery motif for sack kitchen towels. The pattern is fairly simple to sunbonnetappliqué. There are lots of choices to purchase or download. The simplest of the Sunbonnet patterns can be traced onto a square of muslin or any other light colored fabric. Appliqué a simple pattern in the following order: shoe, dress, apron, hand, sleeve and finally her trademark hat. The pattern can be appliqued by needleturn easily since the curves are gentle and if the block is made big enough, the pieces can be basted and needleturned very simply. Embroidered details can be added after the pieces are appliqued, such as lines to depict fullness in her dress and hat, or flowers. These lines can be stitched with cotton floss using a stem stitch or lazy daisy stitch. The pieces can also be attached to the base fabric with blanket stitches,  for a thirties reproduction feel. Fabrics with small, bright colored calicoes and prints, like the thirties reproduction lines are perfect to achieve the retro look. The block can very easily be machine appliqued using either a satin stitch or a decorative stitch to hold the edges down.

Sunbonnet Girl blocks can be appliqued and pieced alternating with pieced blocks to make endearing little girl quilts. Although most traditional blocks are normally set on a plain square set, the motif can also be appliqued on blocks to be set on point.

For more information on making a quilting block click here!


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