This coif is a fine example of blackwork, a style of needlework popular in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was worked with a single colour of silk, usually black, but also blue, green or red, on linen. The pattern consists of repeating sprigs of holly leaves, with berries worked in silver-gilt thread. The inside of the leaves is embroidered with running stitch. This may be a transition from the repeating geometrical stitches of the 16th century to the subtle speckling stitch of the 17th century, imitating the shading of woodblock prints.
Until the end of the 17th century the coif was informal headwear for women. Plain linen versions were worn by the working-class. Middle-class and aristocratic women wore elaborately decorated coifs. It would have been worn by itself indoors, or with a hat on top in public. In Western Europe it was customary for both men and women to cover their heads in public up until the 1960s. A hat was an essential part of respectable dress and, from a health perspective, head coverings were considered necessary to protect against chills and disease.” (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O364614/womens-coif-unknown/ accessed 29/08/2013. Victoria and Albert Museum Collection)
Women were required to cover their heads in the 16th Century (and centuries before and after) lest they be considered a harlot. With beautiful headwear like the French hood and embroidered coif, women in the Elizabethan period certainly made a silk purse from a sow’s ear!
I fell in love with embroidered headwear when looking at the collections in the V & A and in many books on costume of the 16th Century. I wanted to have a coif that would look appropriate for upper middle class and lower nobility, so I chose a monochrome colour scheme.
I speak enthusiastically about embroidery, but many people approaching it feel overwhelmed with the number of stiches and choices. I thought that it would be a good exercise to show how just two commonly used, simple embroidery stitches (three if you count the occasional French knot), and a complementary design, could create a complex and texturally interesting effect.
Rather than recreate an extant coif, I took the design from this late 16th (early 17th) century smock:
Place of origin: England, Great Britain (made)
Date: 1600-1620 (made)
Artist/Maker: Unknown (production)
Materials and Techniques: Linen embroidered with silk
Museum number: T.326-1982
The shape of the coif was decided from studying a number of extant examples from the late 16th century collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections.
Place of origin: Great Britain, UK (made)
Date: 1590-1610 (made)
Artist/Maker: Unknown (production)
Materials and Techniques: Linen, silk thread, silver-gilt thread; embroidered
Credit Line: Given by Miss Agnus A Hepburn and Mrs Margaret Owen
Museum number: T.24-1975
I won’t go into the detail of the huge number of extant embroideries, particularly coif’s, I accessed on the Victoria and Albert Museum collections site – my primary research source. I have listed some of the most pertinent Museum numbers below from the late 16th and early 17th century, with the earlier period embroidery more heavily weighted when considering my embroidery:
I pre-washed the linen to minimise shrinkage as this is an item of clothing.
It was common to use ink to transfer designs in period, so I chose a fine light brown ink pen and a light box to put the design on the linen grounds. I favoured this as I knew I would be working on it for some time and did not want to loose the design.
I tacked the linen on to a slate frame and completed all of the knot work design in a stab chain stitch (in modern embroidery circles, often referred to as a Elizabethan chain stitch). I worked all of the flower designs in stem stitch without hoop or tension in order to get a looser, ropier effect. The French Knots were also completed this way.
I then washed and blocked the finished embroidery, cut it out and lined it. Turning over the part near the neck so a tape could be inserted for tying.
The project took a little over 200 hours to complete and is worn with a plain triangular headscarf tied at the neck.
Due to the availability of the an exactly right silk in the colour I wanted and the difficulty working with modern ‘shiny’ silks, I chose a two ply silk from BB’s Yarns. However, should I decide to use this silk again, I would make the design larger and less cluttered to adhere more strictly to the style of the period.
Author: Nicola de Coventre (nee Nicola Boyd), August 2013.
Dr. Nicola Boyd
I am fascinated by all kinds of decorative needlework.