Coifs as headwear and An Unstitched Coif project

So, as if I haven’t got enough to keep me out of mischief I’m very excited to have been accepted as part of the ‘Unstitched coif’ project. The goal is to embroider a blackwork coif as part of Toni Buckby’s Phd project at Sheffield Hallam University in association with the V and A. She is collecting the experience of stitching from 140 volunteers. The coif I’ll be stitching is a version of this unworked coif in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A accession number T.844-1974 in case the link breaks, image quoted from their website).¬†Hopefully you should be able to follow the link for more information about the original if you wish. There is evidence that someone started seed stitching the coif but didn’t like their work and unpicked it.

At least they started! My work is on the frame but I’m having a minor panic as I’ve never worked such fine fabric – the linen for the project is 74 count and comes from Italy. Unpicking will not be an option. I don’t think I shall opt for seed stitching (the red hood further down the blood makes use of seed stitching). I prefer the geometric diaper patterns of the earlier Tudor period but the flowers and insects are quite small so I shall have to pick my patterns carefully so that they show to best effect. Modern blackwork embroidery uses a shading technique by adding threads into to make a more dense pattern as it progresses which would also be tricky to add into this design. I am lucky enough to be using some silk thread of different thicknesses that I was given several years ago which might lend itself to toning. I am also rather partial to layering patterns in different colours but again don’t think this is the occasion for it.

As many of you know I love blackwork embroidery and have been doing it for many years although on one occasion I did have something of a disaster when I decided to stitch a medieval knight and his lady from a copy of The People’s Friend. All went swimmingly until it was pointed out to me that I had managed to create a pattern of swastikas. Now, while I realise that in other parts of the world its meaning is rather better than in Europe, once they’d been pointed out to me – all I could see was the unfortunate pattern and it wasn’t as though I could remove the design or even amend it to hide what I’d created.

Back to the history of the coif as head gear. Men, women and children all wore coifs and all classes of people wore them. On the plus side they helped keep you warm – isn’t there a saying about heat being lost through lack of head gear? Respectable women kept their hair covered. Practically, it also meant that their hair stayed clean for longer. Coifs were the underwear of the hat world – or if you want to be a bit more precise – a foundation layer. The shape and method of securing the coif depended on the fashion of the period.

Some women wore a triangular cloth under their coif to pull their hair back from their forehead, hence the alternate name forehead cloth, and to keep it covered – this was worn in a manner similar to a head scarf tied at the back of the neck or under the chin. Then the coif was worn over the top of the ‘cross-cloth’ as it was sometimes called. Evidence from wills suggests that respectable women owned a lot of head linen whether they were called cross-cloths, quarters, kerchiefs or headrails. It makes sense as an undecorated triangular cloth was easier to wash than the more ornate and expensive outer layers of headwear. Having said that, forehead cloths were often made to match the coif that sat on top of the cloth – and the one pictured on the left is covered with gold spangles.

The coif was a close fitting cap made of a light fabric such as linen. Originally it would have had strings to tie under the chin but by the Tudor period the strings were disappearing and more likely to be secured by being tied around the woman’s hair which was tied in a low bun at the back of her head. Coifs might be plain, decorated with lace or embroidered. Wealthy women wore forehead cloths and coifs made from more expensive fabrics such as silk and the embroidery might have been more ornate. In 1562 Queen Elizabeth received three cloths and a coif made with cambric and netted with gold.

At the beginning of the Tudor period coifs were worn by women under the heavy gable hoods and French hoods that were fashionable at the time. They were also worn indoors, in private, without the additional heavy headgear and at night time as part of the night attire – think warmth and hair less likely to be tangled. By the seventeenth century women wore a coif indoors and put their hat on top of the confection before going out.

So that’s what they were – and unsurprisingly there’re many examples in museums around the country as well as depicted in portraits of the period. The embellishment on the coifs is reflective of the style of embroidery that was popular at the time. The one featured here is from the seventeenth century and can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth Century Dress.

de Courtais, Georgine, Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles.