16th Century Coif

A Sixteenth Century Embroidered Coif 

(Edited on April 13, 2008) 





A linen coif, embroidered on a white linen ground with black silk in chain and speckle stitches.  The design is after an embroidered panel currently in the Carew Pole collection. 



Until the sixteenth century, the term “coif” (or “quaffe”, “quayffe”, “coyf” or “quoft”) referred to a man’s close-fitting plan linen cap, rather like a baby’s bonnet, with flaps to tie under the chin.  By the sixteenth century, the original man’s coif was worn only by a few learned professors and other generally elderly men.  The new, contemporary “coif” referred to a lady’s undercap, sometimes curving forward over the ears (in which case the coif had “cheeks and ears”).1 

Often, these coifs were worn with a forehead cloth, known as “crosscloth.”  Many sets of matching coif and crosscloth were decorated with similar embroidery.   Extant pieces show embroidery done in blackwork, polychrome silks, drawnwork, and whitework.  Some of these coifs and forecloths feature a lace edging as additional decoration. 

Figure 1 below shows an extant linen coif, dated 1600-1625, embroidered in black silk and silver-gilt thread, which belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 


Photography by Robert Capozello, 2003

Figure 1: Embroidered linen coif, black silk and silver gilt over linen, c. 1600-1625. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Design and Materials 

The design on the coif is after a partially embroidered panel in the Carew-Pole collection.  This collection today constitutes one of the most outstanding private collections of examples of English embroideries of the last four hundred years.2 Regrettably, most of the embroidery in this particular panel has been cut out, and all that remains is the original inked design, and a very small portion that has been embroidered in chain stitch with silver gilt.  (See Figure 2) 

Figure 2: Detail of the Carew-Pole Panel. Photo from "Blackwork" by Mary Gostelow. Dover Press, Inc. 1976, pp. 67.


For this project I used a pattern redacted by Laura Mellin, which is part of her line of historical-based patterns.  In doing so, I followed the much honored sixteenth century tradition of purchasing a design and turning out a personalized version. 

Because the Carew-Pole panel had very little in the way of embroidery, other than a very small berry branch embroidered in chain stitch, I had to make a decision on what type of stitching I was to use in my own coif, as well as what type of thread.  The original panel is stitched in silver gilt.  However, since I have no experience in embroidering in metals, I decided that this first project was not the ideal item in which to start experimenting.  Therefore, I decided to use black silk, and decorate with gold spangles for shine. 

For the stitches, I picked chain stitch, which had been used in the original panel, and speckle stitch for the filling.  Speckling was a very popular stitch for this type of work. Figures 2 and 6  show the detail of the speckling on the coif in the Victoria and Albert Museum, while figures 3 and 5 show another two examples of speckling on a sleeve and a stomacher respectively.  The latter also belong to the V&A. 

The black silk I used was 2/30 Gemstone silk, because it had more “body” than stranded silk and would give that three dimensional effect I was looking for. 

As for spangles, this type of decoration is found in many coifs, foreheads, and nightcaps.  Spangles (also known as “oes” or “owes”), were circular little flat pieces of gold (silver gilt) and silver, stitched to garments in decorative patterns, or powdered over the whose surface.  In 1575 England, Robert Sharp was awarded the patent giving him the right to manufacture them.3 

I have also noticed that in other extant pieces (not shown), spangles are usually placed on the ground cloth, outside the embroidered figure and not inside.  That is why, although the berries looked like the logical place to stitch the spangles, I picked a simple chain stitch border with a French knot in the center. 

Photography by Robert Capozello, 2003igure 3: Detail of embroidered sleeve in speckle stitch. Black silk over linen. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Photography by Robert Capozello, 2003

Figure 4: Unassembled coif. Black silk and silver gilt over linen. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Photography by Robert Capozello, 2003

Figure 5: Detail of partially finished nightcap, speckle stitch. Black silk over linen. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.




I started by copying the pattern to a medium weight linen, taping pattern and fabric to a window which makes it see-through and easy to trace.  For that, I used an embroidery transfer pen.  I would like to point out that after I was done, it was very hard to completely erase the blue markings of the embroidery pen.  They were supposed to disappear with water.  Nevertheless, extant pieces still show traces of the original ink in which these motifs were traced, so I am not terribly concerned.  All the same, next time I will probably use archival quality ink instead.  I believe that any traces of it will look better. 

Like I mentioned before, I outlined the figures in chain stitch, and filled the leaves in stem stitch, doing some shading.  The centers of the berries have a French knot, and I stitched spangles for a sparkly effect. 

photography by Robert Capozello, 2003

Figure 6: Detail of the needlelace threading loops in the V&A extant piece. I reproduced those in my own piece. Pictures of mine below.


Photography by Robert Capozello, 2003

Figure 7: Inside view of the unlined extant coif at the V&A. To line or not to line, that is the question.



The Mystery of the Missing Lining 

My next decision was whether or not to line my coif.  On one hand, the extant pieces I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum, were all unlined.  To make sure, I checked with Susan North, Curator of 17th & 18th Century fashion of the V&A, to make sure that I had not missed anything. She confirmed that the extant coifs they have at the V&A are not lined, nor is there any evidence (ie: stitch marks, remnant of fabric) to suggest they once were, and that the few that are lined in their collections, the linings were clearly added in the 20th century for conservation reasons. (See Figure 7.) 

So the mystery remained:  How on earth did the coifs survive in such a good shape, since make-up, oils and dirt of the hair would have done a lot of damage to an unprotected coif?.  (Laura Mellin has written a very interesting article on the matter  which you can access here.) Might some type of lining or other protection have been used and later removed for conservation purposes? Might coifs have been worn over another, simple coif that would take the abuse?  The world might never know . . . 

So the facts as they stood were as follows: 

  • Fact:  The extant embroidered coifs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which are the ones I studied, are all unlined.  Contacting other museums is in my “to do” list, but so far this is what I know.  (I will post updates whenever I acquire more information on the subject.)
  • Fact:  Unlined coifs would most likely get their embroidery ruined by natural oils in your head and hair.  (Not to mention make-up!)

With all that information under my belt, I decided to experiment with a removable lining.   By that I mean I assembled my coif without a lining, and then made a separate coif which was lightly tacked with a running stitch to the embroidered piece.  This has protected the embroidery, given some more body to the coif (which otherwise would have been very floppy), and allowed me to take it apart very easily for cleaning.  This method has not really left any markings on the embroidered piece so far, which might explain why the extant ones do not show any traces of lining if indeed at one point in their existence they had one. 

In the end, I was very happy with my coif and its detachable lining.  Once I started wearing it, I also found that since the flaps cover your ears, it is makeup that does the most damage more than the oils and dirt in the hair.  Taking into account that many women were no stranger to makeup even at that time, a lining or some other type of protection would have been a good idea.  Perhaps in the future I will experiment with wearing an unlined coif over an undecorated, simple one, and see how that works. 

UPDATE:  April, 2008.  I contacted the Manchester Galleries (Platt Hall), in the UK, and I received a reply from Dr. Miles Lambert, Senior Manager of the Gallery, who indicated that as far as he was aware, none of the 13 coifs in their collection were lined.  He added that he would let me know if he found anything to the contrary. 

Stay tuned . . . 


My Embroidered Coif in Various Stages 

Figure : The embroidery has been finished and it's ready for cut and assembly.


Figure 9: Detail of the embroidered panel.


Figure 10: The needlelace threading loops have been added.


Figure 11: Detail of removable lining. I used looser stitches for ease of removal.


Grey wool herringbone kirtle, with aubergine wool flannel sleeves.  Made its debut at Chalice of the Sun God VII - Outstaring the Medusa.  Must make doublet for it.  16th Century style.  October, 2010.

And here I am wearing my coif. Isn't it nifty?



Bibliography and Resources 

Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. 

Gostelow, Mary,  Blackwork.  1976, Dover Publications, Inc.  Mineola, New York. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum webpage.  Do a search on “coif” on “Explore the Collections” 

The Manchester Galleries (Platt Hall) Do a search on “coif” on “Explore the Collections” 

Elizabethan Costuming Page:  Drea Leed’s Mega-Page 

Extreme Costuming:  Laura Mellin’s Web-Page, Coif Section. 

Lady Arrienne Lenorra Ashford:  Marie Shorn’s excellent page on needle lace. 


I am indebted to both Susan North, Curator of 17th & 18th Century fashion of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as Laura Mellin, for sharing their research with me and for a very interesting discussion on the matter of linings.  I would also like to express my gratitude to Dr. Miles Lambert, Senior Manager of the Manchester Gallery, for taking the time to reply to my inquiries. And thanks to Marie Schorn, who taught me how to make needle lace at Pennsic! 

End Notes 

1Gostelow, Mary,  Blackwork. 1976, Dover Publications, Inc.  Mineola, New York.  pp. 64. 

2 Ibid. pp. 66-67. 

3 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.p. 368.