How to Make Sunbonnet Sue Blocks
How did you fall in love with Sunbonnet Sue?
My grandmother made several Sunbonnet Sue blocks, which my aunt found and made into a beautiful quilt. These Sues were made from flour sacks back in the depression era. In those days, flour came in pretty flowered fabrics such as muslin. Each week, the newspaper would print a quilt block pattern you could make from these flour sacks. Not everybody could afford to use their flour sacks on Sue; some used them to make underwear and clothing for their children.
In order to make the blocks, you will need a Sunbonnet Sue pattern. There are so many of them out there, from Grandma’s favorite little girl Sue to the elegant grown-up Sue. There is even a Sam you can add to your quilt, as well as Overall Bill. It’s rumored that Sam and Bill are both in love with Sue.
Sunbonnet Sue is one of the oldest and most well-known appliqué quilt patterns out there. When you make this quilt, it will almost be done entirely by hand, which means you can really be proud of your handmade piece. When it comes to sewing all the blocks together, however, I prefer the sewing machine.
What You'll Need
- Sunbonnet Sue Pattern: Once you decide which Sue you love, print your pattern. If you bought a book, you can follow the instructions it provides. I got my pattern from Quilter’s World Magazine. The article was written by Cate Tallman-Evans, and my pattern is one that her great-grandmother used back in the late 1800s or early 1900s. I’m not sharing it here because I don’t have her permission and can’t find it online.
- Mylar heat-resistant Plastic Sheets: These will be used to trace your pattern pieces. I only used two pieces to make my templates for this quilt, so I had some left over for other templates.
- Marker: Choose one that writes on plastic.
- Freezer Paper
- Rotary Cutter
- Cutting Mat
- Quilting Ruler
- Fusible Bonding
1. Create the Applique Templates
Lay your mylar plastic sheet over your printed Sue pattern and trace each piece as a whole separate piece, leaving enough space between to cut them out with scissors. You will have the following parts:
Some patterns only have an arm, while others also include a pocket or an apron detail. Whichever pattern you choose, create a template for each piece.
2. Trace on Freezer Paper for the Block's Paper Piecing
Use your templates to trace around the template. Do this on the paper side (not waxed) of your freezer paper. If you are making sixteen blocks, you will need to trace sixteen of each piece onto the freezer paper, leaving at least a half an inch in between so you can easily cut them out.
- While you are tracing your pieces, know that the way they face on the freezer paper will be opposite the way they face on your quilt blocks. If you want them looking right on your quilt, face them to the left on the freezer paper and mark each template on the top. You can easily get confused here and make some facing the wrong way like I did. It’s frustrating if you only have just enough fabric and make a mistake.
Once you have traced all your pieces, cut them out and set them aside in a safe place until you need them. Place your template in a manila envelope with your pattern and mark it with the date and pattern name. You or a future family member can use them to make another quilt, maybe a hundred years later!
- I taped leftover scraps of the fabrics I used to a piece of blank paper. Then, I slid it back to back with the pattern into a plastic cover for safe keeping. I’m a little OCD about stuff like quilting and future generations—I put a nice label on the back of each quilt I make with my name, date, location, and the name of the person I am making the quilt for.
3. Choose Your Fabric
I have a huge fabric stash that I chose from with my granddaughter’s help. We also used fabric from two dresses she wore as a toddler that I saved for such an occasion. If you have any baby clothes or toddler clothes you will never use again but don’t want to throw away, this is a good way to memorialize them without taking up closet space. You can later point to the fabric and tell them where it came from—my granddaughter loved this idea.
- You can buy fat quarters at WalMart, from retailers online, or at any fabric store. Some people make the same color dresses and hats throughout the quilt, but we chose to do different colors with contrasting hats that we embroidered with flowers or decorated with beads. We also embroidered little flower bouquets in their hands.
- You can use reproduction fabrics, which means they are new fabrics reproduced to look like fabrics from past eras. I’m sure you can find them in a quilt shop in the area or order them online if that’s what you want to use. Some people like the purity of making a historical quilt pattern in historical fabrics that can’t be found any longer or aren’t usable.
- You also need to buy background fabric. I used white with whiter bubbles or hearts for my background. You can use cream, off-white, or whatever color you want. Just make sure you choose a color that shows off Sue to her best advantage. For a sixteen-block quilt, you will need at least three yards of your background color. I buy more just in case.
- There will be a sashing in between your Sue blocks, and you can choose this fabric now or wait until you have them done before choosing a color (or colors) that compliment your Sue dresses and hats. Depending on the size of the quilt you want to make, your sashing can be anywhere from ½” wide (finished) or 3” wide (finished). You can even buy extra white fabric if you don’t want to separate your blocks with colored fabric.
Before you cut any of your fabrics, they will need to be washed, dried, and pressed. This is so they will not shrink after you make your quilt. Wash darker colors separately so they won’t bleed on lighter colors.
4. Cut Background Squares for Sue
Cut the background squares according to the size you want your blocks. Make sure Sue fits nicely centered in it with enough background that she isn’t touching the sashing or getting cut off around the edges. Follow your pattern’s instructions or make it a little larger if you'd like.
I use a rotary cutter, cutting mat, and quilting ruler to cut the background blocks and sashing. If you are good with scissors, you can use them to cut your pieces—I’m not steady and accurate enough to do that. You will still have to measure and mark your blocks to make sure they are square (or rectangle) and even.
How to Press Freezer Paper
5. Paper Piecing: Step 1
You are now ready to iron your freezer paper onto the fabrics. I do each template one at a time: all dresses, then all hats, etc.
- Lay your fabric right-side down on your ironing board.
- Press with a hot, dry iron.
- Place your first freezer paper dress, wax-side (shiny side) down. Leave enough room to cut around easily, leaving a quarter inch seam allowance outside the freezer paper edge. Do not remove the freezer paper after cutting out your pieces. Do the same with all remaining pieces.
6. Paper Piecing: Step 2
Once you have all your Sue parts cut out, fold the ¼ “ seam over the freezer paper toward the back.
- Gathering it as needed, roughly stitch around your piece, closely following your freezer paper without bending it. You want all your dresses and other pieces to be pretty uniform. Don’t worry about what color thread you use for this because it is just going to get pulled out later. Just knot the bottom of the thread and leave the other end free when you're finished basting.
- After you have all your pieces basted, remove the paper. This is tedious work and a little time consuming—my least favorite but necessary part of the process.
- Gently cut a small slit in the paper, being careful not to damage your fabric.
- Start pulling away from the seam area, holding the edges firm so you don’t pull out your basting. Tighten the basting as needed by pulling on the loose thread.
7. Assemble Sue
Next, you will assemble Sue’s wardrobe on the background block. Some people use straight pins for this, but I use a fusible that bonds from the heat of the iron and later dissolves in the washing machine. I hate pins because nothing lays perfectly flat but rather buckles and bunches. With the fusible bonding, my pattern lays perfectly flat and I don’t have to guess if it’s going to stay in perfect position throughout my appliqué stitching.
- You don’t have to use large pieces of bonding under your pieces. I just use a few small strips under each accessory to hold them in place.
- Do not bond until you are one hundred percent sure your Sue is centered. That means from her little feet to the top of her hat, from the back edge of her dress to the tip of her fingers or the front of the dress.
- Add strips of bonding and iron with it placed under your pieces. Arrange all of your blocks in the same way.
8. Applique With a Buttonhole Stitch
Sue is traditionally appliquéd with a buttonhole stitch in black embroidery floss. You will want your stitches to be 1/8" apart and 1/8" deep into your fabric. I used my basting stitches as a guide for the depth of my appliqué stitches, so keep that in mind while basting.
- Stitch around every piece individually. You won’t have to stitch around the top part of the feet because that will be under the hem of the dress. This is the same for the opposite arm that is sticking out from under the dress as well as the top of the dress where her bonnet covers it.
When you have finished all your appliqué you can pull the basting threads out. I usually just grab the knotted end and pull, working it out gently. You now have a finished Sunbonnet Sue block and have mastered the art of paper piecing as well as appliqué. For me, this was a great accomplishment because I had never made anything entirely by hand before.
9. Get Sashing
Give yourself a huge pat on the back and take a break before deciding what type of sashing you want to use to put your blocks and borders together.
- If you downloaded a pattern or bought a book, they will give you the yardage and cutting instructions inside.
- You also to buy enough fabric for your backing and batting; these yardages will also be included in your pattern.
We used a window pane around our blocks, which added depth and interest to the quilt. Most people just use a straight sash.
History of Sunbonnet Sue
The history behind Sunbonnet Sue is interesting because it tells a lot about the people in the century in which she originated. She started out as an embroidery design in Victorian quilts that were copies of Catherine Greenaway’s greeting card illustrations in the mid to late 1800s. Catherine was a book editor in Britain but gained her fame through her illustrations of children and girls in their bonnets.
I think it definitely helps your creative juices to flow when you know the backstory of little Sue in her country’s past during a time when women tried to make beautiful things with few resources.