It 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!
Images of Sunbonnet Sue originated in book illustrations from the late 1800s.
Between 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.
She was tied to railroad tracks.
She was eaten by a snake. (I LOVE this one!)
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.
Sue died at Three Mile Island.
She ran afoul of the mob.
She committed Sue-icide.
I 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.
The Deadly Sin of Sloth
In 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!