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What is a Sunbonnet?

Sunbonnets have become identified with westward expansion in mid-1800s America.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2014
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A sunbonnet is a type of deep brimmed hat worn to protect the face and head from the sun. Various forms of sunbonnets have been worn for centuries, almost always by women, although they were viewed as old fashioned in most parts of the world by the mid twentieth century. The sunbonnet is an iconic part of American frontier culture, and numerous examples of it can be found in paintings, writings, and museums focusing on westward expansion in America. Versions of the sunbonnet are also worn by native Americans in both North and South America as part of their traditional dress.

The construction of a sunbonnet is relatively simple. It is made from thick, stiffened cloth or straw which is designed to hold a deeply curved shape. The sunbonnet is tied under the chin, and a flap across the back of the bonnet protects the back of the head and neck from the sun. The deep edges of the sunbonnet keep sunlight off of the face and out of the eyes of the wearer, allowing her to work outdoors without fear of sunburn. In North America, they are most commonly seen on the heads of Amish women, who retain traditional dress as part of their cultural identity.

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A very plain sunbonnet may be made from unbleached straw with simple cotton ties, but more elaborate versions are also made with brightly colored fabrics and vivid trim. Amish sunbonnets tend to be very simple, made either from white, black, or dark blue fabric, and sometimes trimmed with lace for special occasions. However, festive sunbonnets made with floral or checkered prints are also available, and many Latin American sunbonnets are made to be highly decorative as well as functional. Travelers to Amish country or Native American lands can sometimes find sunbonnets for sale, along with other traditional clothing and crafts.

Numerous sunbonnet patterns can be found for individuals interested in making their own. The pattern and materials are easy to work with, and making a sunbonnet can be an excellent beginning sewing project. Weaving a sunbonnet out of straw is somewhat more difficult, especially for people who have never worked with straw before. The sunbonnet also appears in the iconic “Sunbonnet Sue” quilting block, which most quilters are familiar with. The Sunbonnet Sue block probably appeared in the 1800s, when quilters began to use appliqué to liven up their quilt patterns.

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