Friday, January 26, 2018

Sunbonnet Sue Says "Me Too"

Just finished:
A little closer: 

I've always enjoyed looking at other peoples' Sunbonnet Sue quilts, yet was never tempted to make my own - the motif, which dates back to the 1800s, is too sweet for my style. But when the #MeToo movement swept through the US, I couldn't get her out of my head.

I have experienced a few, very minor episodes of molestation. But when #MeToo exploded, I was astounded to discover that virtually all my female friends and acquaintances have also been molested - many experiencing far worse than I did - regardless of how strong, confident, and ferocious I knew them to be.

And if that's the case in my relatively privileged circles - imagine how much more for girls, women, and some men, living in more challenging circumstances?

And what about our mothers?  I can remember when the phrase "date rape" and "sexual harassment" didn't exist. What did they think about when it happened? Did they blame themselves? And what about their mothers?

And then....what about the women who stitched all the quilts and embroidered all the textiles in my vintage collection?

"#MeToo" also coincided with a new tv series based on Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale." The handmaids are concubines who bear children for the infertile rich, and wear voluminous red garb, with white bonnets.

So it wasn't much of a mental leap over to Sunbonnet Sue. To acknowledge the endurance of our foremothers, I wanted to use vintage linens.

My collection included this set of delightful antimacassars - stiff linen pieces that I am pretty sure were intended for chair and couch armrests and backs, to keep them clean. There were five of these long narrow ones (why 5?),

And 5 more of these slightly bigger units, which I am guessing are the head rests.
The hand stitchery is gorgeous.

I also have several pillowcases with embroidered and/or crocheted full-skirted women along the hem. I chose the following pillowcase, in which the belles have inexpert torsos and arms:
One of the consequences of sexual abuse is lasting damage to women's body image. Hiding - with clothing, with fear of going out, with eating disorders - is not uncommon among people who have been severely abused.
To make the appliqued figures, I first looked at pictures of Sunbonnet Sue quilts on the web. The minimum is a bonnet, dress, and feet. Some are armless, helpless, like Pez. So I sketched and cut out freezer paper patterns, one for right-facing girls, one for left,
...and used those to cut feedsack fabrics from the 1930s - plus a smattering of other vintage fabrics. I fused them to four armrest antimacassars, and did a zigzag around each shape to hold it down.
The resonance of feminine biology in the flower in the next figure was serendipitous - I didn't even notice until it was cut out.

Below, the bright red bonnet was probably a mistake - it stands out too much, and is newer than the other fabrics - but I couldn't resist the needlework print, wanting to emphasize the point that perhaps one reason our foremothers enjoyed sewing, embroidery and quiltmaking so much was because it reduced their stress and anxiety.

The most challenging aspect of this quilt was crossstitching the words. I don't have a much cross-stitch experience, but fortunately I have this thrift shop find: 
The book is copyrighted 1967, to Doris Drake in Thomasville, Georgia, If you find a copy, (they sometimes appear on ebay and etsy), snatch it up - it has a whole bunch of vintage fonts in cross stitch. I more-or-less used the lower one on this page. 
I embroidered "Me Too" on an old grey handkerchief. The line of letters seemed straight when I stitched them (in a hoop); but the underlying grey hankie was so flimsy that it got away from me and the O's are rising. 
...which gives me even more respect for the women who did the original, perfect, stitching along the hankie's bottom edge. 
The line of red stitching on the left side of the quilt is a rip in the pillowcase. A little bit of batting shows through. 
The buttons that run down the sides represent more people; they also represent garments undone.

I can't possibly be the only quilter who has connected "#MeToo" with Sunbonnet Sue. I hope this inspires more quilted responses, and would welcome seeing other peoples' interpretations. 

UPDATE: A very nice, brief history of Sunbonnet Sue is at https://suzyquilts.com/sunbonnet-sue-brief-history. Also, a commenter below noted other examples that have unusual/quirky themes. 

UPDATE: Another history of Sunbonnet Sue, with some irreverent examples in questionable taste. 

23 comments:

  1. 5 antimacassars probably because '3 piece suite', sofa and 2 armchairs, was the norm.

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    1. Thanks, Julia! That explains the head rest count, but don't furniture armrests always come in pairs? Except maybe a fainting couch!?

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  2. Or sometimes the arms are wooden rather than upholstery.
    Your concept and finished work is a very good statement piece. I really enjoyed seeing the work and your process story.
    Kristin

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    1. Thanks, Kristen, I didn't think of wooden arms - wouldn't the fabric slip off them?

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  3. I've been cleaning my sewing room and going through the non-cotton fabric so this piece comes at a perfect time for me. I love the combination of the vintage fabric, the embroidery, modernized. Those Sues look like they belong in the spaces. I hadn't made the connection, but I'm sure our foremothers endured a great deal. I'm so glad attention has been drawn to this issue, and hopefully people learn from it and we all listen to women.

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  4. I certainly was surprised to learn how nearly universal the experience is in my immediate world alone.

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  5. Wow! This is an amzing and inspiring piece. I’m impressed with your work and all the careful consideration that went into it. Bravo!

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  6. Why don’t you post this under the #MeToo! Sunbonnet Sue represents the innocents who have gone through this emotional pain. I see the vintage fabrics reminding us that this is not anything new. It was always hidden during our parents’ & grandparent’s eras. I, myself will admit here something only few people know that in summer of 1971, when I was 19, I was the victim of date rape on a beach. There went any ideas of romantic walks on the beach & I can still feel that sand in every unmentionable place. I never reported it as in 1971, it was believed that I was asking for it since it was a date. So, this is the first time I came out in public. My mom never knew, but my current husband & my psychotherapist who helped me work though it. It has been hidden innback of my mind until this #MeToo started. May we all for healing

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    1. Diane, your story is heartbreaking. So many women, too many women, and too many boys and men, are victims of this kind of crime, which is unique in that we tend to blame ourselves as much as the culprits. I believe #metoo is for the most part a positive force in creating a more open dialogue. Thank you for this courageous contribution.

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  7. This is fantastic! I have heard about the handmaidens tale but didn't realize that was what other was about. I love how you used sunbonnet sue for your me too statement. So appropriate. You've inspired me as usual. Thank you 😊

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  8. I read Handmaid's Tale years ago - I should reread it. People say the series is good too and reflects some of what's going on in our country with those who want women to go back to being "breeders." Thank you for your nice comment, as always, Carol!

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  9. Sunbonnet Sue seems to have been a way for women to represent many things over the years. She is anonymous and faceless yet represents womanhood, whether it is "evil Sue" (who got banished from the Nixon library) Y2K Sue who illustrated women's progress during the twentieth century, or Amish Sue who displays Amish colors and simplicity. She is a wonderful tool to express women's experiences both positive and negative without making an association with a specific individual.

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    1. Wow, thank you for that very useful background! The Nixon library story is ringing a bell - I need to look up all these references. There's also a "suicide" Sue, about which I am wildly ambivalent. Thank you so much for adding this background!

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    2. I just found "bad" Sunbonnet Sue at http://www.geocities.ws/Heartland/Oaks/6813/badsue.html. It is pretty funny!

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  10. Thank you for your thoughtful and very moving piece. It makes the point so eloquently and elegantly, especially with your commentary and process notes. You are really so amazingly talented...

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    1. Oy, Jeri, thank you. That comment is so nice I can just retire now!

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  11. Have you seen Thomas Knauer's interpretation of Sunbonnet Sue? Another powerful message.
    Also, if you want to stitch on flimsy fabric, try starching it before hooping.

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  12. Cathy,
    I have never been a fan of Sun Bonnet Sue--too cutesy for me--but you have taken it to a poignantly meaningful place. Yes, I am another who added to the #METOO posts. Sigh.

    I must say I got a big kick out of the Naughty Sue blocks--those are a riot! Thanks for sharing your research. :-)

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  13. Wonderful piece on a sobering subject. Thanks Cathy.

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    1. Thanks, Debbie. Yes, I couldn't find anything funny to say about it.

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  14. I love you. Yep, you always make me think and smile both. I was molested by both adopted parents, and a brother in law, and then sexually harassed many many times over the years. I didn't report it as I couldn't afford to lose my job. No one cared or would have believed me, I would have been the trouble maker. And yes I have long term scars to cope with even at age 60. Damn it. I love all the people standing up and saying it out loud. Isn't it time to stop judging people based on color, sex, religion and look at their character? I like your interpretation, and that you did one, and shared it in public! LeeAnna Paylor at not afraid of color (and now I've stood up, me too)

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  15. LeeAnna, you're making me cry. I love you too. I can't imagine the scars. Have you considered making a quilt on this?

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