A splended rearguard action earned Sunderland a second win of the season and a third straight clean sheet.
Richard Dunne's own goal midway through the first half was enough to bag all three points as the hosts were left clinging on at points during the second half.
A fairly even first half gave way to a Villa-dominated second, but the visitors couldn't find the killer touch they needed to get back into the game.
Aston Villa chief Gerard Houllier will feel his side should have come away with a point, but his counterpart Steve Bruce will be delighted with the defensive steel shown by his charges.
The back four of Nedum Onuoha, Phil Bardsley, Michael Turner and Titus Bramble were outstanding, laying the foundation for a battling win.
Sunderland achieved a first win since late August and cemented their reputation as a much tougher side to play against than last season.
They had the first chance of the game when Steed Malbranque headed a Jordan Henderson cross wide after just three minutes, but it was Villa who should have been ahead early on.
Ashley Young's pass into the right channel released former Sunderland loanee Stewart Downing, but his low drive beat Simon Mignolet but not the base of the keeper's left-hand post.
And there was a nervy moment as Nigel Reo-Coker latched on to another through ball, but Lee Cattermole got in a timely challenge and Mignolet was able to collect. Cattermole's intervention, though, drew protests from Villa who felt a penalty should have been awarded.
Although Sunderland, who had drawn each of their last five league games, were enjoying much of the possession, it was Villa who were creating the chances.
Sunderland lived dangerously again when Emile Heskey outstripped Bramble down the right and only a timely tackle from Nedum Onuoha prevented Stephen Ireland from slotting home the resultant cross.
But, after Darren Bent almost got on the end of an excellent cross from Henderson, a defensive mistake from the visitors gifted Sunderland a 25th-minute lead.
Malbranque won a 50-50 challenge with Stiliyan Petrov and crossed from the right, centre-backs Dunne and James Collins got in a mess and Dunne poked his attempted clearance into his own goal with Brad Friedel helpless.
It would have been two just moments after the restart had Friedel not acrobatically turned Welbeck's close-range volley behind from point-blank range.
And from the resulting corner Welbeck was inches away with a brave header at the near post which flashed just wide.
But then the game seemed to fall a little flat as Villa responded, with Bramble and Heskey enjoying a titanic battle.
Sunderland's response almost brought them a second goal three minutes before the break; Ahmed Elmohamady fizzing an angled shot past Friedel's far post after a super run down the right.
Villa came out and tested Mignolet early in the second half via a low Ashley Young drive which the Belgian stopper gathered easily.
And, anchored by first-half sub Steve Sidwell, the visitors began to push on and they were unlucky not to equalise during a flurry of activity just after the hour.
First Downing swept a cross in from the left which evaded Heskey in front of goal and only a timely block from Phil Bardsley prevented Young from slotting home.
And then from a Villa corner Henderson managed to block Sidwell's header on the line and hack the ball clear under pressure.
Manager Bruce attempted to pep things up by replacing Welbeck with Asamoah Gyan, but still the pressure kept coming.
Downing wasn't too far away with a half-volley from 16 yards, and sub Marc Albrighton forced an excellent save from Mignolet with a driving run and shot.
Then Dunne attempted to make amends for his previous error with a shot in a scramble, but the defender saw the ball dribble tantalisingly across goal before going out of play on the far side.
Sunderland engineered a brief respite when Bardsley thundered a powerful drive wide of the post with Friedel stranded, but there were still more moments of concern as the dangerous Heskey nodded a floated cross inches past the far post at the other end.
Frayed nerves aplenty as the clock wound down, and three minutes of injury time were full of incident as Bent went clean through only to be denied by a great challenge from Dunne.
And sub Gyan lashed a shot wide late on as Sunderland clung on for their lives to extend their unbeaten run to seven league games and chalk up a third successive shut-out to move into the top half of the division.