The Death of Sunbonnet Sue: It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Girl

Sunbonnet Sue, Strangled by a SunflowerIt was a dark and stormy night. A young woman, wearing a sunbonnet and an apron and known as a pillar of the community, was found dead in highly suspicious circumstances. When contacted, a neighbor said, “I didn’t really know her—she was quiet. But she seemed like such a good girl—who would want her dead?”

Sunbonnet Sue was dead. And I, for one, was glad.

______________________________________

I spend a lot of time writing, in hushed and reverent tones, about crafts made by “loving hands at home.” I realize that this adds to a pervasive stereotype of makers—quilters, knitters, gardeners, bakers—as old-fashioned, traditional, proper, boring good girls.

It’s easy to lose track of the real, complicated human beings who choose to express themselves by making things, people who are creative, who have strong personalities and opinions, and who are funny!

The life cycle of the quilt and embroidery pattern known as Sunbonnet Sue serves as a perfect example of the ways people, real people, have used one icon to serve lots of different purposes and express a lot of different views of the world.

The original Sunbonnet Sue sort of stands for the stereotype of the prim, faceless crafter. In a previous post, I referred to her as ubiquitous and, in the United States, in the early- and mid-20th century, she really was!

trad sueImages of Sunbonnet Sue originated in book illustrations from the late 1800s.

book sueBetween 1900 and the 1930s, Sunbonnet Sue started showing up in embroidery and quilt patterns that were widely disseminated in the US, according to Carla Tilghman in her very interesting academic paper about the evolution of Sunbonnet Sue (I found the paper at www.academia.edu/5767883/The_Life_Death_and_Resurrection_of_Sun_Bonnet_Sue but am unable to create a link that will take you there–sorry!) At one point, patterns for making a Sue quilt appeared in 900 newspapers!

Sunbonnet Sue clearly struck a chord with many women, offering a sweet and innocent image of childhood.

But Sue was always such a Goody Two-Shoes! The quilt and embroidery images of her showed her in namby-pamby good-girl activities, watering flowers, playing with her dolly, just standing around looking cute.

According to Tilghman, in the heat of the feminist movement of the 1970s, some quilters, feminists all, decided that prissy Sue needed to die. From their collaboration, came the quilt, “The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue.” The quilt was composed of twenty panels, each quilter killing Sue off in a different way.

And they didn’t allow Sue to die a peaceful death either . . .

Some of Sue’s deaths were just regular misfortune—she was hit by lightning.

Sunbonnet Sue, Struck by LightningShe was tied to railroad tracks.

Sunbonnet Sue, Tied to the TracksShe was eaten by a snake. (I LOVE this one!)

Sunbonnet Sue, Eaten by a Snake It could happen to any of us, right?

But this Sunbonnet Sue was also a citizen of a complicated world, dying some pretty modern deaths. Sue died at Jonestown, Guyana—yes, she drank the KoolAid.

Sunbonnet Sue, GuyanaSue died at Three Mile Island.

Sunbonnet Sue, Three Mile IslandShe self-immolated.

Sunbonnet Sue, Self Immolation

She ran afoul of the mob.

Sunbonnet SueShe committed Sue-icide.

Sunbonnet Sue, Sunbonnet Sue-icideI have to admit, seeing this quilt for the first time made me downright gleeful. I love the subversive attitude and the wit. Lots of people found it distasteful, though—I read quilting forums where people railed against these makers, and prayed for the souls of the poor dead Sues.

I do believe this is the sort of thing about which reasonable people may disagree. Give me funny, irreverent crafters any day!

Sunbonnet Sue has continued to evolve. I’m sure there are people out there making traditional Sues to give to cherished grandchildren but others still choose to kill Sue off in gruesome ways and also to reinvent her as a 21st-century kind of gal!

If you go looking, you’ll find lots of images of “bad Sue” patterns these days. Bad Sue lives as she wishes. The website for Urban Threads, for instance, offers lots of patterns for thoroughly modern “Sinbonnet” Sues—goodbye to innocence! Goodbye to prim! These girls embrace the 7 Deadly Sins, as well as roller derby and tattoos.

sloth

The Deadly Sin of Sloth

sinbonnet toughIn today’s world, there are Sues for every taste, as many Sues as there are makers. If you are a modern maker, you didn’t need me to tell you that you are complicated and multi-faceted. You didn’t need me to tell you that you are naughty and nice, and that you have a sense of humor and awareness of the world around you.

If you were going to make a Sunbonnet Sue that represented you, what would she be doing? If you remember my most recent post, mine might be pulling weeds with one hand and wielding a cocktail in the other! Or crafting with attitude!

sinbonnet sue crafty

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61 thoughts on “The Death of Sunbonnet Sue: It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Girl

      • It’s not just tongue-in-check; also a social commentary and, if I am interpreting it accurately, Goody Two Shoes isn’t so much good as subversive to the status quo. I am enjoying the academic paper.

      • I love subversive! And I’m glad you were able to access the paper. I found it very readable . . .

        I hope things are okay for you–no posts in a long time . . . I don’t want to pry in “public” here–just wanted you to know I am thinking of you.

      • Okay, but I am tired! Thank you. I was planning to post something today but it hasn’t happened. Just to add to life’s dramas; my mother, who is 92, was admitted to hospital last Thursday. Luckily she was allowed home today; home being in Australia. I made cake at the weekend to take my mind off things and dropped the flour container on the floor; LOL! I could have done with Sunbonnet Sue and her tidy broom. Still flour isn’t as bad as milk. Or maybe that’s not true. The dog will help lick up milk where as he is not interested in licking up flour!!!!

      • You’ve had more than your share of life’s drama lately! I can see why you haven’t been posting–don’t want to pressure you to; just wanted to be sure everything was basically okay. Dropping the flour canister–yikes. My big fear is dropping a big bowl of melted chocolate . . . it hasn’t happened yet!

      • Just finished the article. Have you read any of the Sunbonnet Babies’ Primers? The original Sunbonnet Sue graphic reminds me of the Steiner or Waldorf doll http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_doll which is very simple, with almost no facial expression, so that the child can use their own imagination with the doll. I was going to say that Sunbonnet Sue may not have lasted so long if her features had been more defined but then look at Barbie! She goes on and on but not on quilts as far as I know. I could be wrong about that!

  1. Sue is my least favorite quilting icon! Thanks so much for the notice of her death. I’ll check back again later to look at some of your links, too. Thanks again. This was a great way to start my day!

  2. Kerry, I chuckled and laughed my way through this post. What fantastic images! I’ll have to give some thought to what my own personal Sunbonnet Sue would look like. Thanks for this post…a good way to start the day!

    • Aren’t they wonderful? I found another site where the woman had one of “Sue meets Hitchcock’s The Birds”–pretty gruesome and funny! I love how witty people are!

  3. As a child of the 70’s Sunbonnet Sue will always be Holly Hobby to me. I remember a big Holly Hobby quilt that hung on the wall of my room as a child. Definitely not the icon I would choose for myself these days. As for irreverent Sue/Holly or whatever the name of our homely bonneted frenemy is, I love the humor in these Bad Sues. I figure those who are making a fuss are just as boring as old Sue. My bad Sue would definitely be wielding a can of spray paint and that cocktail doesn’t sound bad either…

    • I had completely forgotten Holly Hobby (I’m a child of an earlier era)! But, of course, you’re right that she’s just a more modern incarnation of Sue and just as insipid. I like the image of Sue with spray paint!

  4. This is fantastic! I’ve always loved that Chesterton quote used in the paper, too.

    My Sunbonnet Sue would definitely be shown ripping that hat off so that we can see her face! As I looked at these images I kept swatting at my eyes and combing back my hair — I want my Sue to SEE AND BE SEEN!

  5. What a cracking story. I love the one (I’m sorry to say) of her tied to the railroad track. It might be more fitting though if she simply died of overwork and boredom in a sweat shop. Poor Sue…..

  6. I giggled my way through this post — the snake one is hilarious! And Sue-icide! And those tiny matches as she sets herself on fire! I loved them all. I didn’t really know much about Sunbonnet Sue until about 10 years ago when I started to attend the Puyallup Fair in Washington with my family. Every year we make a point to look at the quilting display, which is always full of Sunbonnet Sues. I think I enjoy her as a bad girl much more than as a goody two shoes. =)

    • I know people love her as Goody Two Shoes (or there wouldn’t be so many of her!) but I love knowing she’s more complicated than that! When you see the good Sue quilts, you’ll always think of her dark side now!

  7. I am not a quilter so I did not know the history and deep feelings about Sue. Her image reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder 🙂

  8. I shame-facedly giggled as you immolated and hung my mysterious childhood beauty. Not having had the long exposure to her that you have obviously had [she is a associated for me with a safe time in a rocky childhood – and seen fondly, but rarely since]. Despite the myriad cruel deaths and modernising of her, I still remain firmly attached to that tiny and innocent image!

    • I thought of you, and your affection for Sue, as I wrote this! I think many of us would be somewhat ambivalent about the good Sue. After all, that which is innocent and safe at one stage can become too confining later. (I’m not sure I’m making any sense.) Sue’s popularity across the years strongly suggests that she was (and is) important to LOTS of people!

  9. my mother loved Sue – think she wished I was a little more like her. even as a child I disliked her – “goodie two shoes”. I wanted to push her into a muddy puddle. thanks for a great start to the day, I’ll spend all day deciding my Sue persona.

  10. Oh how you and Dead Sue made me laugh!!! Love it. Ever since I started making little girls dresses from vintage fabrics,about 3 years ago, Hollie Hobbie has been my best seller. Mums always get nostalgic about their childhood bedrooms and want there own daughters to wear a HH dress. I did make one dress where Hollies broom was replaced with an electric guitar….maybe my reaction to her tweeness? Now my brain is filled with irreverent ideas to appliqué!!!…thanks Kerry.

  11. Haha, I can see people sigh: ” is nothing Holy anymore in our lives???” But no, Sinbonnet Sue is a hilarious story and part of our crafting life and history! I loved the Sloth Sue best. But my Selfie Sue would probably be the opposite with indeed with cocktail at hand…

  12. I do feel sorry for Sue, but this post and images made me smile… Never heard of Sonbonnet Sue before, thanks for sharing. A great story to start of the day.

  13. Pingback: In Others’ Words | The Snarky Quilter

  14. Pingback: BOM 005 – Sumbonnet Sue | AnAnAs

  15. I rolled on the floor laughing at this……tears streaming from my eyes…..love Sunbonnet and I teach hand applique using/doing a Sunbonnet Sue…..She needs to be rotary cut-ted and stitched to death in the ditch and trapped under a fallen patchwork house…this is so tongue-in-cheek–that’s what makes it so funny!

  16. Pingback: The Death of Sunbonnet Sue: It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Girl | KenMaursCorner

  17. It’s May 2017, and I have just reblogged your Death of Sue to KenMaursCorner! LOVED it (your take on killing off Sue)Due to trying to please a non quilting friend who has just discovered Sue and quilting themed novels, I found you whilst googling SBS.. Sin bonnet Sue and BAD -ass Sue: I wish I’d known of them years ago. Somehow I don’t think that Jill will get a “sweet saccharin Sue from me

    • I have never, never, never understood the appeal of SBS. She is too good for my taste–too cute, too fussy. Still, different strokes for different folks, as we used to say!

      • I had never given much thought to SBS, as she has never appealed to me in any way. Most of my quilting and embroidering has been worked on the principle of “what if? Why not?”
        I must admit I did enjoy seeing Sue on a BBQ spit!

  18. Can you post a pic of the quilt RIP Sun Bonnet Sue? I saw it at a quilt show once and told my sister about it. She didn’t believe me.

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