As the needle bends

A world view thru my hobbit hole door

Dutch Dolls and Sunbonnet Sues From the Past

After a friend saw the quilts on my blog (all both of them… tee hee…), she asked if I would look at a quilt gifted to her parents on the occasion of their marriage and see if it had the potential to be salvaged. The quilt has been well loved by many members of the family over the years since their wedding, and this year, her parents will celebrate their 60th anniversary.


That question, and being granted temporary custody of this quilt to evaluate its life-potential has raised more questions than I (and she) imagined. So I thought I’d see if I could compile some of those questions here, and share the thoughts, in case some of your friends have a well loved quilt that has great sentimental value, and asks you to give it a look, and see if it can be resuscitated.

The consensus of opinion about this charming quilt, known variously as "Dutch Doll" or "Sunbonnet Sue," is that it definitely has life left in it. The main decision that has to be made is similar to the quality of life question that many of us in healthcare encounter. It would seem that many of the things that lent it the charm that cause my friend to love this quilt (aside from the fact that it has been in her family since before she was born) are part of what led to its current condition. What kind of life will it have in the future? That of a pampered decoration, languishing across the foot of a guest bed, to be ohhhhed and ahhhed over as it’s being refolded, or will it be used by visiting grand or great-grandchildren, when they need a special cover – perhaps when they are feeling ill, or homesick, being tugged and pulled and hugged for many years to come?

The quilt was "birthed" rather than bound – to those of you who aren’t quilters, that means that the top and back were sewn together, right sides together with the batting, then turned right side out. Presto – you have finished edges, much like the edges on a collar. That makes for a faster finish (and believe me, I know about NOT finishing things enough to cherish ways to speed up the process!) initially, but leaves the area where wear shows first with little reinforcement. Imagine how frayed the edge of your collar would be after 60 years of washing, wearing, and loving. The quilts that my grandmother made were all bound, meaning a separate "binding" was sewn over the edge of the "sandwich" after the quilting was done, and the edges all evened up. This is not to say that the "birthing" method is bad – just that it is not as durable as binding. Nannie always used a double "French" binding – meaning there were two layers of fabric covering those raw edges, and even so – most of the quilts I loved as a child had their edges worn to a frazzle. How I wish I’d known, at the time, that it was possible to remove the old binding, and sew on another – or even to sew another over the worn one.

Another thing that has caused the batting to turn to "cotton balls," which are oozing out where the edges have let go is that the piece was not heavily quilted. I wasn’t around 60 years ago – so don’t know what kind of batting was available at the time, however, most modern cotton batts recommend quilting no further apart than 2-4" – depending on the brand, and whether it has "scrim" or is needle-punched. I don’t pretend to know which is best – merely that, as a largely self-taught quilter, one of the things I have learned is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Quilting is what hold the layers of the "quilt sandwich" together. The less quilting present, the more movement there is between the layers when it is pulled on (say – up over a person, after they get in bed underneath it), or wrapped around them, not to mention the stresses of laundering. There is probably a law of physics which would explain the stressing caused on the different layers by motion not being inhibited by more "dense" quilting; but I think it’s simpler just to quote all those quilting magazines and say "follow manufacturer’s recommendations on quilting distances."


Some of the sashing is badly stained, and some sashing pieces have developed splits from the threads of the fabric weakening by being folded along the same lines for too long (and don’t feel guilty if you are reading this and haven’t re-folded your quilts lately – I haven’t either, and I now know better!). The backing could be used to replace the sashing, the outer most of which was
the layer sewn to the backing when the quilt was "birthed." Vintage muslin can be found to replace the background of the one block that has staining issues, and vintage yardage can be found to replace the backing. I have vintage ’dresses’ for the dolls, perhaps even similar in color to the one worn away. But when all that is done, the fabric in the top will still be 60 years old, and who knows how many more years is left in fabrics of that age?


Then there are the "purists" – the ones who say that the original fabric should remain in place, and have matching patches appliqued over the worn spots, or even coverings of tulle. If this quilt were to have the life of leisure, languishing on the foot of the guest bed, only to be removed if someone were coming to actually USE the bed, I might agree. But I don’t see this as that type of quilt. Perhaps it is because my middle name is Sue, or because my "Nannie" always wore a sunbonnet when she was outside on the farm, but this quilt tells me that it is a quilted hug, that I hope will be felt by many generations to come, not a lady of leisure.

The "dolls" can be removed from the background blocks – actually the background can be cut away, preserving the buttonhole stitching that holds the pieces together, and then they could be appliqued to new fabric. There are reproduction "30’s" fabrics that can be found to replace the worn away dress. The bleached "domestic" (that’s what Nannie always called bleached muslin – and I love to recall her words about quilts) is easily found, and is stronger than what was available 60 years ago. The bubblegum pink sashing and backing, likewise, are available in modern or reproduction versions.

The quilt could be restored largely as it was originally, with quilting only around the applique parts, however, some years from now, some other daughter or granddaughter would be faced with deciding the best way to preserve this charming quilt – to maintain the loving memories that it contains in its fibrous being. Or, like the 6 Million Dollar Man, it can be made better, stronger, faster… Ohhhhhh, I got carried away there for a minute… The charming parts can be salvaged, and it can be made into a "brand new quilt" utilizing the technology of today to recreate the original feel and, largely, the original look of the quilt, in a manner that should weather the years a little more easily.

But those are decisions I don’t have to make. It is not my quilt – it has only come to visit me for a short time, and perhaps to inspire me to find the charming Sunbonnet Sue blocks found in my aunt’s belongings, and turn them into quilted hugs for some of my favorite female relatives. (Egads, that would mean deciding how to set them together… what color sashing would be best for Stacy? For Emily? I don’t want mine to have pink sashing – maybe I should use scrappy sashing… maybe I should use 9patch and snowballs for alternate blocks… maybe I should just pet the blocks, and fold them lovingly away for another day….) One of the ladies on Stashbuster asked if we "overplan" or "overthink" projects – and I must plead guilty to both. So I think I will just think of those blocks, and overthink and overplan those quilts while my friend, and her mother decide what, if anything, they want done with this quilted hug.

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May 9, 2007 - Posted by | Quilting and Hobbies (wishing I had 'spare' time)


  1. It’s me again. One more thought now that I see the holes in the sashing, not just the eaten away one at top. You can always add a ‘cute” applique over the holes in the body of the quilt, even with a bit of fusible so as to not stress the remaining fabric. I was asked to repair a comforter tear, and ended up fusing the fabric back to the batting, then covering it with a machine embroidered butterfly on organza, tacked on by hand.
    If you decide to take it apart, I don’t think you should use the backing for sashing. The fabric probably will not stand up to the new fabric, and you would wind up with the same problem- worn sashing.
    Whatever you decide on, it will take a long time, but it may be worth it to the owners. Becky Ball in KCMO

    Comment by rball | May 10, 2007 | Reply

  2. “As the Needle Bends” — LOVE IT! I’m going to enjoy your blog, I can tell!


    Comment by Dorothy | May 13, 2007 | Reply

  3. I think I would do whatever needed to be done to make the quilt usable for the next generations.

    Comment by Marge Campbell | May 13, 2007 | Reply

  4. I’ve been a quilter for years and I’ve never heard the term “birthed”. Learn something new every day. This is a great blog and I love all the information about salvaging the quilt.

    Comment by Julie | May 15, 2007 | Reply

  5. my neighbor gave me his late mother-in-law’s hand pieced Overall Sue and Overall Sam quilt blocks. the blocks are worn and the background is stained. great reading about the quilt you have, I picked up some valuable information.

    Comment by ana | October 3, 2007 | Reply

  6. As I sit here after reading this blog I cry for happiness for a couple who has weathered a true milestone in ones life. To be ask to reconstruct something so cherished is such an honor. It also brought back memories when my DD was 2 and I started Overall Sue and Overall Sam for her but never finished as life happens (when I finally drug it out years later the mice had taken it over). At that time I sewed alot but little quilting and never knew there was a name for the pattern I thought was original..HAHAHA.. Today that quilt would be 24 yrs old. I wish you luck on the reconstruction and may the family have it for many more years. Thank you Bobbie for such a great blog.

    Comment by Brenda McWhirter | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  7. All the old stuff I wore as a child is coming back. Kinda scary and makes you feel old, but it looks great most of the time.

    Comment by Retro Fashion | October 12, 2007 | Reply

  8. With the 70s and 80s back in style, I just loving vintage clothing from the thrift shops. You can find designers like Chanel and Armani for cheap there.

    Comment by vintage dress | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  9. […] all, I do have a no-mail round robin to finish, an ugly fabric challenge to complete, and YES – Sunbonnet Sue is still limping along slowly in the destruction phase of her reconstruction), and the second….. which fabrics would be perfect for this design???? Decisions, decisions […]

    Pingback by A lovely squishie - How cool is that? « As the needle bends | June 1, 2008 | Reply

  10. My Aunt in Arkansas is looking for the original antique Dutch Doll quilt pattern. I can’t find the one she wants. She doesn’t want the Sunbonnet Sue. Please, help me find what she is wanting. Thanks, Francine

    Comment by Francine | August 2, 2008 | Reply

    • This is for Francine, I have gone to a website called and typed in the words Dutch Children and you get 112 different Dutch children and they’re sayings. They’re post cards and I’m sure you could find a boy and a girl within 112 of them to make your own pattern of. Good Luck! Kathy Ford

      Comment by Kathy J Ford | January 17, 2010 | Reply

  11. Sunbonnet Sue – I have received quilt squares of the sunbonnet sue that my mother did who has since past away. These squares are over 25 years old. There were only 9 squares and I need 12 for the quilt. We helped my granddaughter make one (she’s 6 years old),my daughter and I made also made one. We now have a sunbonnet sue quilt made from four generations.

    Comment by Susie | March 2, 2009 | Reply

  12. My grandmother’s old patterns were thrown away when she died. It is ashamed I did not intervene as I have this exact quilt and it is is in near mint condition. It is about 52 yrs old. My primary reason for writing is the quilt has a nasty tear about six inches long. I have MS and have little use of my hands. My wife is simply not capable of sewing more than a button on a shirt. Do you know of anyone who can repair/restore this treasured heirloom.
    Phillip Elmore

    Comment by phillip elmore | April 17, 2009 | Reply

  13. Francine, who is your aunt in Arkansas.I am in Arkansas and am also looking for the vintage Dutch Doll Girl & Boy pattern.It is similar to Sunbonnet Sue but has the dutch shoes and hats.If you find it please e-mail me at – as I want a copy.Thanks

    Comment by Rowena Satterfield | May 15, 2009 | Reply

    • Rowena, Please look at the comment I left for Francine it tells you where to go for the little Dutch Boys and Girls. Good Luck! Kathy Ford

      Comment by Kathy J Ford | January 17, 2010 | Reply

  14. I just read about trying to have the Sunbonnet Sue quilt restored. It was a very charming tribute. The person that made this quilt would be so very happy to know that it has been loved for all these years. I have acquired 13 Sunbonnet Sue blocks that need to be put together. A relative had made these squares back in the 1940’s and they have been passed through the family in a box. I am the last of the generation that is interested in sewing and I thought I would like to complete this and pass it down to my daughter and she to her daughter, etc. The problem is that I have no experience in quilting and these are placed on an angle so it needs to be point to point which to me is more difficult than just putting a square block together. I purchased some fabric today for the back as I need to make a few more squares to make this big enough. When I got it home it does not look anything like the old fashioned bleached muslin. Where can this material be found? I never thought of going to the vintage shops for old dresses. Thanks for the idea.
    Karen from Wisconsin

    Comment by Karen | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  15. I am so excited to read this blog. I too have the dutch doll quilt in the making. It was in my moms things and I remember her pulling out occaisonally first in the 50’s and showing me the dolls cut out. In the 60’s the dolls were sewn together by hand. I only saw the the quilt from time to time in this state. In the 70’s, 80’s, mounted on white cotton fabric squares. In the 90’s I was too busy and had forgotten about my moms handi work. In 2001 Mom Passed and as I was going through her things I found the beautiful quilt that had been started early in her life and the dolls were mounted onto navy blue fabric and had become a Quilt top. I always thought about the quilt because it was a place that we visited together that created this fond memory. This year God put into my life an amazing quilt maker and I am having this treasure finished. I am so blessed that I have something of Moms that has a wonderful memory of times that we had together.

    Comment by Amanda | April 16, 2011 | Reply

  16. I am searching for a 1930s quilt pattern called Dutch Doll. It is a little girl leaning forward and holding a bouquet of flowers. She has a short print dress that flares out in the back revealing her panties. Her hat covers her head and has a pointed top and a single trailing upwards ribbon. She has bare legs, socks and shoes. Please let me know if you have any info on this pattern. Thanks, Joyce

    Comment by Joyce Larson, AQS Certified Quilt Appraiser | May 8, 2012 | Reply

  17. I have an original Dutch doll my grandmother made in 1964 it is a double two girls in one square one l larger than the has been put away and is in perfect is the top and has never been finished with the backing.I am going to find someone to finish for me…it is the same pattern as shown in this blog with the exception of the two rather than one girl per block.

    Comment by Teresa | September 18, 2015 | Reply

  18. I always said I would never make a quilt. Then I decided to try the dutch doll square. I have made 20 blocks now but I don’t know how to quilt.So I guess I will Have to learn that now. I am starting on the parasol today.

    Comment by Betty Grubb | June 13, 2017 | Reply

    • I have this double Dutch doll quilt my grandmother made in late 50,s.I thought it was her family pattern it is all hand sewn.just the top,it was not finished.she was full Duch and had been making them since she was a girl(born in 1890).I am just getting into quilting myself,yes at age 65, it’s never too late…

      Comment by Teresa | June 13, 2017 | Reply

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