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How to make Sunbonnet Sue Blocks

Updated on April 1, 2012

My Sunbonnet Sue Blocks

History of Sunbonnet Sue

Sunbonnet Sue is one of the oldest most well known appliqué quilt patterns out there. When you make this quilt it will almost ALL be done by hand and you can be really proud of it. You can do it all by hand but when it comes to sewing all the blocks together I prefer the sewing machine, you will see why further down.

The History behind Sunbonnet Sue is interesting and tells a lot about the people in the century she originated. She started out as embroidery designs in Victorian quilts, which can be seen online at the Smithsonian. These designs were copies of Catherine Greenaway’s illustrations on greeting cards and almanacs in the mid to late1800’s. Kate was a book editor in Britain but gained her fame through her illustrations of children and girls in their bonnets. It definitely helps your creative juices, or at least it did mine, to know the honor and history little Sue holds in our country’s past as women tried to make beautiful from little.

My grandmother made several Sunbonnet Sue blocks, which my aunt, Loretta Callahan of Genesee Idaho, 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, muslin, and 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 under wear and clothing for their children.

Aunt Loretta made a quilt for me of Sue’s and Dresden plates which is beautiful as well. Loretta is a very talented quilter and hopefully, one day, I can take pictures of some of her quilts and add them to a hub.

You will need a pattern for your girls. There are so many Sunbonnet Sue patterns out there, from Grandma’s favorite little girl Sue to the elegant grown up Sue. There is even a Sam if you want to add him to your quilt as well as Overall Bill. It’s rumored that Sam and Bill are both in love with Sue.

Once you decide which Sue you love, print your pattern; if you bought a book you can follow the instructions included. I got my pattern from Quilter’s World Magazine, in 2007, when my granddaughter wanted to make her first quilt at ten years old. The article was written by Cate Tallman-Evans and my pattern is the one that her Great Grandmother used back in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. I want to thank Cate for sharing her grandmother’s pattern. I’m not sharing it here because I don’t have her permission and can’t find it online.

Mylar heat resistant plastic sheet to use for templates
Mylar heat resistant plastic sheet to use for templates

Mylar Plastic Sheets for Applique Templates

You will need Mylar heat resistant plastic sheets to trace your pattern pieces onto, with a marker that writes on plastic; you can get these at Wal-Mart in the craft section in packages of six 8 ½ X 11”, most craft stores carry them as well. I only used two pieces to make all my templates for this quilt so I had some left over for other templates.

Lay your plastic template material 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 a hat a dress, arm, hand and a shoe. Some patterns only have an arm; some have a pocket or an apron, whichever you chose you will have a template for each piece.

My granddaughter's Sunbonnet Sue and Butterfly quilt.  We did the window frame sashing on this quilt.  She made the butterfly blocks and I did the Sue blocks.  I also hand quilted this whole quilt at her request.
My granddaughter's Sunbonnet Sue and Butterfly quilt. We did the window frame sashing on this quilt. She made the butterfly blocks and I did the Sue blocks. I also hand quilted this whole quilt at her request.

Freezer Paper for Paper Piecing Your Block

You will then use your templates to trace around, 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 that you can easily cut them out.

Keep in mind, while you are tracing your pieces, whichever way they are facing on the freezer paper will be opposite on your quilt blocks. If you want them looking right on your quilt face them 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 place 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 pieces of the fabrics I used, cut from the leftover scraps, to a piece of blank paper and slid it, back to back with the pattern, into a plastic cover for safe keeping. Don’t ask me why, 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 and location along with the person’s name I am making the quilt for.

Fabric Choices

I have a huge fabric stash that I chose from, with my granddaughter’s help. We also used fabric from two of her dresses she wore as a toddler that I had saved for just such an occasion. If you have any baby clothes or toddler clothes that 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 also buy fat quarters at Wal-Mart, online or at any fabric store. Some people make the same color dresses and hats throughout the quilt, 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.

There is the choice to use reproduction fabrics, which means they are new fabrics reproduced to look like fabrics from past eras. I have added a couple of links that show what those fabrics look like. I’m sure you can find them in a quilt shop in your area or order them online if that’s what you want to use and can’t find them anywhere. 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 will also want to buy background fabric. I used white with whiter bubbles or hearts for my background. You can use a cream or 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 want to buy 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 and then choose a color or colors that compliment all your Sue dresses and hats. Depending on the size of 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 have made your quilt. Wash darker colors separately so they won’t bleed on lighter colors.

Background Squares for Sue

Cut your background squares according to the size you want your blocks, making sure Sue fits, nicely centered, with enough background that she isn’t touching the sashing or getting cut off around the edges. Follow your pattern’s instructions on this or make a little larger if you like.

I use a rotary cutter, cutting matt and quilting ruler for cutting the background blocks and sashing. See my hub on Making a Winning Quilt and tools needed. If you are good with scissors you can use those to cut your pieces too, I’m just 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.

This is a good example of how to press your freezer paper. Follow all other instructions in Hub

Paper Piecing Step 1

You are now ready to iron your freezer paper onto your 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 (shiny) side down and with 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.

Use the running stitch for basting your pieces

Here you can see the freezer paper at the back with the quarter inch seem basted along at 1/8th of an inch
Here you can see the freezer paper at the back with the quarter inch seem basted along at 1/8th of an inch
These pieces have had the freezer paper removed.  You can see that the seem is still there as well as your basting stitches.
These pieces have had the freezer paper removed. You can see that the seem is still there as well as your basting stitches.

Paper Piecing Step 2; Basting

Once you have all your Sue parts cut out, fold the ¼ “ seam over the freezer paper, toward the back, and, gathering as needed, roughly stitch around your piece making sure you closely follow 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 so just knot the bottom of the thread and leave the other end free when finished basting.

After you have all your pieces basted you have to remove the paper. This is tedious work and a little time consuming, my least favorite part of the process but necessary. Gently cut a small slit in the paper being careful not to damage your fabric and start pulling away from the seam area, holding the edges firm so you don’t pull out your basting. Tighten your basting as needed by pulling on the loose thread.

Centered Sue

Once she is centered, lift the edges and slide a piece of fusible far enough under so you aren't sewing into it when you do your buttonhole stitches
Once she is centered, lift the edges and slide a piece of fusible far enough under so you aren't sewing into it when you do your buttonhole stitches

Assembling Sue

Next you will assemble Sue’s wardrobe onto the background block. Some people use straight pins for this, 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 and 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 perfectly 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 front of dress. Then add strips of bonding and iron as placed under your pieces. Arrange all blocks in the same way.

You can see I have finished the applique on this block and my stitches are neat and uniform for the most part.
You can see I have finished the applique on this block and my stitches are neat and uniform for the most part.

Applique With Buttonhole Stitch

Here the appliqué process starts. Sue is traditionally appliquéd, with a buttonhole stitch, in black embroidery floss. You will want your stitches to be 1/8th inch apart and 1/8th inch 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, 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 that was a great accomplishment because I had never made anything ALL by hand before.

Play about the demise of Sunbonnet Sue...It's cute!

Congratulations!

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 together and borders etc. If you downloaded a pattern or bought a book they will give you the yardage and cutting instructions for both. It will also be necessary to buy enough fabric for your backing and batting; these yardages will also be included with your pattern.

We used a window pane around our blocks which added a depth and interest to the quilt. I will put up a video on how to do this. Most people just use a straight sash.

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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      I absolutely love Sunbonnet Sue quilts. Very nice hub and tutorial.

    • tigerbaby777 profile image
      Author

      tigerbaby777 5 years ago from Nampa

      Thank you Kris! It has been a learning experience for me and thought I would share it.

    • joaniebaby profile image

      joaniebaby 5 years ago

      Thanks tigerbaby. Quilts have always been a passion of mine. Your instructions are very detailed for those who would like to make the Sunbonnet Sue quilt. Maybe it will encourage someone to start quilting and keep the tradition going.

    • tigerbaby777 profile image
      Author

      tigerbaby777 5 years ago from Nampa

      Thank you Joanie, it is my hope also.

    • mvillecat profile image

      Catherine Dean 4 years ago from Milledgeville, Georgia

      Thanks tigerbaby for the Hub. I have always loved Sunbonnet Sue. I am in Project Linus and we get one of these guilts at least once a year and they are precious. I will make one once I get caught up on other pattern. Thanks, very interesting.

    • tigerbaby777 profile image
      Author

      tigerbaby777 4 years ago from Nampa

      I LOVE the Linus group! I take my grandchildren every year to sew some blocks. Nice group! I am happy you enjoyed my hub.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i love your step-by step instructions. Very detail and straight forward. Lovely pictures. Will try them when i get the supplies. Thanks

    • tigerbaby777 profile image
      Author

      tigerbaby777 4 years ago from Nampa

      Thank you peachpurple, you will love making this classic quilt and it will be cherished for generations to come.

      Be sure to make a lable on the back with date and your name and place of origin. It will give someone, perhaps, a hundred years from now, a record of where it came from.

    • profile image

      joan 4 years ago

      iam just learning how to use a computer nd wanted to let you know how lovely I find this article and will create various for mmy grandchildren and friends thank you from joan

    • tigerbaby777 profile image
      Author

      tigerbaby777 4 years ago from Nampa

      Thank you Joan. I have a new granddaughter and I am making her a baby size one as well as a larger one for her cedar chest.

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