The Two Types of Blackwork Coifs

Some Actual Research!

(I know right? Usually I just look at other costumer’s blogs, and that’s not really real research).

When pandemic started, my brain was absolute mush from trying to do my job and watch a 2 year old an 18 month old (holy crap my kid was only 18 months old when this all started, given that he is 2.5 now…) Aka finding a block of time to do any kind of fitting (my least favorite part of sewing) was just not going to happen, plus all events were cancelled for the foreseable future. So I went to my stash, and pulled out an embroidery kit for an Elizabethan coif I bought at least 8 years ago. Turns out embroidery is zen and repetitive and you can just sit down and do it with no prep work, so it was the perfect kind of pandemic crafting.

A coif is a head covering. All women pretty much covered their hair at all times. But of course, any rich woman is going to be a bit ~*~Extra~*~ and make their coif embroidered and blingy to show off!

Here is a bit of the research I did to figure out how I wanted to fill in my coif. I was originally going to leave it as just outlining the patterns, but a third of the way through my coif I panicked that it looked dull and amateur. So I went to the internet to look at extant coifs to see what they did.

There seemed to be two main types of blackwork coifs:

  • Counted blackwork, where you fill in the shapes with very regular geometric patterns. This works best with an even weave linen, because you are literally counting how many threads to stitch over to make the patterns extremely precise. (Sometimes you’ll see this called Holbein blackwork where the front and back of the embroidery look the same, but that kind is just a subset of blackwork where the front and back are both visible like sleeve cuffs. It does not have to be reversible to count as blackwork).
  • Freeform blackwork (a term I made up), where the fill stitches are just speckle stitch (or seed stitch) to add shading and dimension.

Now for some pictures of both:


Coif embroidered with black silk and silver gilt. V&A. Accession #T.11-1948
Coif. V&A. Accession #T.12-1948


Coif embroidered with red silk and spangles. V&A. Accession #T.32-1936 (Check out all the animals on there!)

And the best coif of all time because of the KITTIES (as soon as I saw this I immediately decided I’ll need a second coif one day just to recreate this one, although why I would ever need two embroidered coifs is left as an exercise to the reader).

Coif, embroidered with silk and silver thread. V&A, accession #T.21-1946

I also like how you can see that the pattern was drawn on with ink before embroidering, as a lot of the thread has worn off this one leaving the ink drawing behind.

On my coif I ended up going with freeform, as I really didn’t feel like pulling out a magnifying glass to precisely count over threads of my linen.

One last note on how these were worn – I elected to line my coif to protect it from my hair oils. However, all of these extant coifs are unlined. It’s extremely unlikely that only unlined coifs survived, and there is no way these were being washed as many were embroidered with metal threads. So how were folks actually wearing them on their heads?

Well, it seems that many coifs were paired with forehead clothes – a triangle of embroidery with strings on the end. Basically the equivalent of tying a bandana around your head? We know they came together because there are extants with matching embroidery:

Coif and matching forehead cloth. V&A. Accession #T.57A-1947


These forehead clothes also seem to be unlined. We do have much portraiture showing coifs and forehead clothes being worn together.

So TLDR; we still don’t really know. Could there be some kind of plain coif or plain cloth under the fancy one.

This entry was posted in Blackwork Coif, Embroidery, Renaissance. Bookmark the permalink.

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