Embroidery Library

The History of Sunbonnet Sue

Sunbonnet Sue has been an icon in the quilting and embroidery world for more
than a century. Her demure bonnet and conservative dress belie a fascinating history, persistent and enduring nature, and a dash of revolution and resistance.

While "sunbonnet baby" quilt patterns existed in
the 1800s, I'll begin Sue's story at the beginning of the 20th century. Two talented women, Bertha Corbett and Eulalie Osgood Grover, teamed up as
a writer and illustrator for Sunbonnet Babies Primers. Sunbonnet Sue, along with pals Fisherman Fred and Suspender Sam, became charming illustrations in schoolbooks and taught little ones how to read.

Sunbonnet lore tells us that Corbett had a dispute with a friend; her friend claimed that facial features were what brought a painting or illustration to life. Corbett disagreed, and kept her sunbonnet babies hidden in oversized bonnets and hats.

A school primer with illustrations
of Sunbonnet babies

People fell in love with Sue's sweet temperament, her ever-present bonnet, and the wholesome and good-natured vignettes of her everyday life. Soon Sue was found on postcards, greeting cards, and even became a design element on plates and dishes.

Her chunky features proved to be enticing for hand quilters and stitchers, and so Sue became preserved for all eternity in a quilt block. In the early 1900s she appeared in  the Ladies Home Journal and Woman's World magazine as well as countless newspapers and pattern magazines. During the Great Depression, Sue surged to popularity, as folks yearned for brighter and sunnier days.
Sunbonnet Sue's popularity took a hit in the '70s and '80s as some quilters dared to shout, "Not all of us love Sunbonnet Sue!" A group of quilters in Kansas, known as the Seamsters Local #500, worked on a controversial quilt that came to be called, "The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue." The current events and social unrest of the time are depicted in the blocks of that quilt.
Sue is pictured at Jonestown, Three-Mile Island, eaten by Jaws, tied to train tracks, struck by lightning - her death is represented over and over again in applique quilt blocks. The original quilt is now in a museum at Michigan State University.

The original "Bad Sue" quilt.

This original "anti-Sue" quilt gave birth to others, and today you can see Sue beheaded by a guillotine, run over by a bus, put to death by the mafia, or being just plain naughty by coloring on walls and stealing art from a gallery (shown right).

Many quilters love making
"Bad Sue" blocks.

Although Embroidery Library has been making designs since 1998, our first Sunbonnet Sue quilt pattern wasn't released until 2005. In this applique design she's traditional, appearing as she has been portrayed for decades. And, then, as we learned more and more about Sue and her fascinating history and contribution to needle arts, we fell in
love with the little girl in the bonnet, and gave her a lifetime of fun and frolics in the form of new designs.

Embroidery Library's first Sunbonnet Sue design is traditional, and applique.

In January 2010 we began a Year of Sunbonnet Sue, and every week Sue and her friend, Fisherman Fred, appeared in different scenes and settings. They rode tricycles, picked apples, visited Hawaii, even traveled to Japan! And as the year progressed, we saw wonderful projects, and heard great ideas for new Sue designs, from talented stitchers everywhere. Here's a small sampling of the fantastic Sue projects that have appeared in the Stitchers Showcase (and there are plenty more in the queue that will be featured in upcoming months!).

A year of Sunbonnet Sue quilt by Marge


Becky's jumper for her granddaughters


Clothes bag made by Alison


Sue-themed calendar by Tiny


Darlette's adorable bucket caps


Barb's winter blues pillow


Sarah's red-and-blue wallhanging


Verla's red-and-blue quilt

Throughout 2010 we heard wonderful requests and ideas from folks about new things that Sunbonnet Sue could do. Those requests culminated in an entire design series released at the end of 2010, filled with colorful and creative designs featuring Sue and Fred doing everything from dancing the flamenco, to walking on the moon.

Meanwhile, with just a simple typo (someone keyed an "i" instead of a "u"), Sunbonnet Sue's evil twin sister was born: Sinbonnet Sue. Niamh O'Connor, the art director of Urban Threads, composed new designs featuring Sue in some not-so-traditional scenes and situations.
You'll find those alter ego designs at www.UrbanThreads.com, including the seven deadly Sinbonnet Sues (anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, and vanity), as well as steampunk, ninja, vampire, and zombie. They're a fun, alternative twist on an old favorite.  


Find Sinbonnet Sue designs at
Urban Threads!

2010 was a wonderful year for all of us at Embroidery Library - in large part due to our exploration of Sunbonnet Sue and her history, as well as seeing your projects and hearing your ideas of what Sue could do. We love to see how you've incorporated Sue and Fred into your stitching projects. Email photos of your projects, as well as any details and information that you'd like to share, to stitch@emblibrary.com.

So long, Sue, and fare-thee-well, Fred! Happy trails to the both of you!


Deb is the President and CEO of Embroidery Library, Inc. She's absolutely charmed by the Super Sunbonnet Sue design, but she's also partial to the swashbuckling Sinbonnet Sue. Deb rarely wears a bonnet.

Katy Kelley, researcher extraordinaire, also contributed to this article. Katy enjoys the youthful optimism of the April Showers Sunbonnet Sue, and the sassy geometry of the Steampunk Sinbonnet Sue.

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