“Sunbonnet Sue and Overalls Sam”

18 08 2014

As I wrote on 15 August, I’m working on three vintage quilt projects for friend and customer, John. After completeing the 80″ x 80″ LeMoyne Star, I decided to work on a smaller project. This is a well-loved and well-worn baby quilt.


The quilt was made for John’s great-aunt Stella whom he never knew. She passed away at the age of 7 due to a congenital heart defect. John plans to give the restored quilt to his mother for Christmas. It holds so many dear memories of her sister.

The quilt contains four dainty “Sunbonnet Sues,” each holding an embroidered flower.


And, not to be outnumbered, there are four “Overalls Sams,” with criss-crossed suspenders.


You can see that the blanket stitching is rubbed away in spots, the pink fabric is deteriorating, and the prints are faded with age. As John and I collaborated about the restoration of this baby quilt, we felt only the appliqued squares were salvageable. I would purchase solid pink fabric for alternate squares, border, backing and binding. The quilt layout would remain the same, for memory’s sake.

At first, I attempted to use a seam ripper to separate the pink squares from the ecru. However, the machine stitching is so tiny and the fabric is so fragile, I decided to cut the ecru squares away from the quilt right beside the seams.

A baby quilt

The quilt was hand quilted with a thick, sturdy thread. I tried using the seam ripper to un-quilt on top of the blocks, but lifting the edges of the blocks and snipping away the quilting stitches  between the layers was quicker and less perilous for the fabric.

A baby quilt 2

I removed some of the embroidered blanket stitches and re-stitched by hand where necessary. One of the Sams blocks was so faded and the overalls irrepairable, I decided to replace the hat, pants and shoes. My dilemma was choosing a fabric for the pants; I needed striped fabric with a faded look. I auditioned homespun plaids and my collection of old shirts. Hubby’s retired nubby gray and blue shirt was the best match. A new solid blue hat and matching shoes will complete the makeover.


Whenever I work with vintage quilts or blocks, I wonder and imagine about the quiltmaker. I also play detective, noticing colors, fabrics, techniques, and stitching proficiency. On this quilt I noticed that the blanket stitching on the Sue blocks was smaller and finer, using two strands of black embroidery floss. On the other hand, the blanket stitching on the Sam blocks was of larger scale, using three strands of floss. It makes me wonder if two quiltmakers worked on this quilt. Or perhaps John’s grandmother made the blocks at different times in her life.

After completing all the repairs, I pressed the Sue and Sam blocks right side down on a white terry towel with a dry iron. With this technique, the embroidery stitches maintained their loft, sinking into the terry loops instead of being ironed flat. Using a rotary cutter, I trimmed all the blocks to 8″ x 9.” Next, I cut seven alternate blocks from washed and dried solid pink fabric. I set the blocks together with 1/4″ seam allowance.


After sewing on the pink side borders, I emailed a picture of the quilt top to John asking if he would like top and bottom borders added. Although the original quiltmaker omitted top and bottom borders, we thought adding them would give a more finished, traditional look to the quilt. John postulated that perhaps his grandmother ran out of the pink fabric. Again, we are playing detective; we have no way of knowing for sure.

Admittedly, the quilt is long and narrow. However, baby cradles, back in the day, were long and narrow compared to roomy cribs of today. This is a picture of my grandson and my mother-in-law. Aidan is sitting in the antique family cradle. The “Sunbonnet Sue and Overalls Sam” quilt would have amply covered a baby sleeping in a similar cradle.

aidan cradle 8 apr

No attempt was made to duplicate the original hand quilting designs: a four-pronged geometric design in each alternate block and diamonds elsewhere on the quilt. Instead, I quilted leaves in the outer border, large flowers in the alternate blocks and meandering in the appliqued blocks. I used a light tan thread, matching the ecru background of the appliqued blocks.


I bound the quilt in pink fabric, similar to the original quilt, and attached a hanging sleeve on the back of the quilt.

Repairing and restoring quilts is always a conundrum. Shall I make it look exactly like the original quilt? Do I have vintage fabrics with which to make authentic substitutions? (After all, “A quilt is only as old as its newest piece of fabric.”) Am I repairing for a museum or for a customer who wants a few more years use from vintage textiles? For this quilt, collaborating with John at key decision points was invaluable. Talking through construction options gave me his vision for the quilt.


What was old and unusable, is now revitalized and useful, and we are both pleased with the results.




6 responses

18 08 2014

I love that you were able to repair this beautiful quilt. Excellent job.

18 08 2014

Wow! What a great job you did and with so much care. She will be thrilled that something so loved is now also to be loved some more.

18 08 2014

What Trinity said!! I think restoring old quilts shows how very much patience you have! Thank you for showing your process, and for also making note that the techniques are different for restoring depending on the purpose!

18 08 2014
Jen Johnston

Amazing work Aby! So impressive!
I’ve always wanted to make a Sunbonnet Sue project!

24 06 2017
Sheryl Trout

I see this is an old post, but inspirational. I have Sunbonnet Sue blocks my grandmother’s sister made for my mother who was born in 1932. I took possession of them years ago carefully cutting away the terribly stained muslin. I have no way of knowing why the the quilt was never completed. My mother is 85 and never sewed. My goal is to complete the quilt having re-sewn them onto new muslin and I ordered reproduction fabric for the trim. I hope to make them proud!

26 06 2017

Sheryl, this is quite a project, but I know you will enjoy decorating with this family heirloom. I suggest writing the names of all the quilters who worked on this project on the label.

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