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(Note: The standard disclaimer stands for the scanned images I am posting today; I have only used them because I could not find an image on-line. Please don't take them, save them, or use them on the web. If you want to get the book they came from, it is The Embroiderer's Story, by Thomasina Beck, aaaaaand - crap.  I forgot the other book name.  I'll post it tomorrow.)

So - a question came up on the Yahoo! Blackwork list about embroidered coifs in period. This is actually a bit of a sticky issue - though we have a number of extant embroidered coifs, it is actually quite difficult to find paintings of women wearing them. 

You know, I could develop a theory about why they're so hard to find... 

"Coifs evolved as a way to keep one's hair clean and out of the way as one was working, so coifs have always had an association with labour and domesticity - think of the number of pictures you have seen of serving people throughout history, and consider that they all wear a headcovering of some sort, frequently a coif. Now - consider the portraits of the Elizabethan and Stuart upper class women you have seen - how many of them had bare heads, or even loose flowing hair? These women did not want to be seen as domestic or needing to work, so they didn't wear coifs, which is why you don't see embroidered coifs in paintings.  The number of extant coifs found in museums were worn by middle-class women for special occasions, but no-one painted middle-class women, so you won't see embroidered coifs in paintings.  Rich women wore something else, like lace veils or attifets, but they clearly never wore embroidered coifs, because I can't find any pictures of them."

I'm kidding, of course, but you can see how strange theories get started, can't you?   

(And just wait for that one to start making the rounds, even though I've clearly said it's a fake theory.)

 A cursory examination of a couple of pictures, an idea or two based on some half-remembered information about symbolism and the meaning of fashion in the 16th century, and you can go horribly horribly wrong.  If you get an idea, you must back it up with hard evidence

 The basic premise of the above theory is sound - coifs are useful for working women, and the plain ones became heavily associated with domestic life (as shown in Dutch paintings from the 1600s showing the difference between the rich and the working class).  But, in an era when every woman kept her head covered, the portraits of women without coifs are either heavily symbolic, or they're wearing some other kind of headdress (they didn't just wear coifs).  In addition, women at home could get away without wearing a coif (especially the more well-off), but if they went out, they would absolutely cover their hair.  A deeper examination of 16th and 17th century portraits shows that most of the women have their hair up (with a couple of exceptions which have deeper meaning than just representation - we can cover that in a later post if you guys want).  In fact, not only do most women have their hair up, they're wearing some sort of headdress.  The heavily decorated women wearing nothing but jeweled crowns are either in masque, or the very top of aristocratic society - queens and royal relatives can get away with anything.

In fact, there are plenty of portraits of rich women with some kind of headcovering - but it's frequently difficult to tell what that covering is.  There are many variations of coif, hat, hood, caul, scarf, head rail, and veil, and portraits were frequently done with the person facing the viewer (especially in England).  Often all you see of the head covering is a lace border. A beautiful lace border, to be sure, but not very helpful for identification.   The lack of visible coifs makes our search for evidence harder.  Not impossible, though, as you'll see below.

We'll start with our best image - tthis woman, who was painted in 1624, had the good sense to tilt her head slightly so we could see what the heck she was wearing on her head.  Isn't she the picture of well-to-do domestic bliss?  Don't we just love her?  Isn't her visible blackworked coif just freaking awesome?!

(Unknown Woman, British School, 1624
(Sorry about the quality of the scan; I did my best, but the original picture isn't fantastic either.)

Yes, yes it is awesome.  It is one of the best pictures of a woman wearing an embroidered coif that I have ever seen; you can clearly see it is wired in front, that it is embroidered, it is possibly lined (the underside of the coif shows no embroidery, and she is not wearing a second coif) and even that it is tied across the top of her head in the manner described in my article on wearing coifs. I find it very interesting to see the tie over the embroidery; like many people (and one in particular on the Yahoo! list), I would be hesitant to tie it in such a manner for fear of destroying the embroidery, but, as we can clearly see, she did not have any such qualms. Perhaps the lesson from this is that we should enjoy our things and wear them. I know that I didn't put all that work into my jacket just to put it in a box and stare at it occasionally. :).  

You know, I've not seen any wear that would indicate tying on the extant coifs I've studied, but then, I haven't been looking for it. 

(Look! Another research project! Whee!)

(This is how new theories start:  I have an idea - is it sound?  I look for evidence - is there any?  I interpret evidence - am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?  I filter for wishful thinking - am I manipulating the evidence to fit my theory? I draw a conclusion - which can be changed if new evidence appears.)

(By the way, I'm planning another jacket. I'm going to put all the spangles I bought from Kass on that one.)

(Enough asides - back to the subject!)

In many ways, the picture above resembles the portrait of Margaret Laton. Both portraits seem to be symbolic of Woman as gentle, domestic, and modest, in contrast to many portraits from the same era of women in masque costumes symbolic of power and (perhaps) sexuality (it's all that free-flowing hair; very sexy).  Margaret Laton is also wearing some kind of embroidered headdress, but it is not entirely clear if it is a coif, or something else, like a forehead cloth, or even a pinned hood.  My jury is still out on that one, since I haven't experimented to see how that shape can be achieved.  I've seen it on other portraits, too.

To further illustrate our embroidered coif research, there are other examples of embroidered head covers, some coifs, some unidentified. There's a lovely reclining portrait of Elizabeth Drury in 1610 (I apologize; I could not get the original picture to scan well, and the only on-line image I found was a bad 18th century copy that showed nothing) that shows her in an incredibly delicate lawn or holland linen wired coif with polychrome embroidery that matches the jacket she is wearing under her loose gown.

(I'm going to blow up that image and re-scan after Pennsic; it's worth seeing.)

And this is a gorgeous example of a white-worked coif; in addition, you can see that she's wearing another smaller coif underneath (this is also a nice painting for the "unlined embroidered coif/second under coif" researchers looking for solid evidence - one line of research frequently informs another, and two theories can be right at the same time). The center top seam is worked in a lovely detached buttonhole stitch, I think (similar to the seams on the Wadham shift).

And, courtesy of the Elizabethan Practical Companion, here is a portrait of Frances Howard, c.1595, wearing a polychrome embroidery coif underneath a fine silk or linen veil.  The pointed front is the clue; any time you see that point, it is almost certainly a coif of some sort.  The pattern layout and construction of the coif produces that very distinctive point.

And there you have some of my research.  Fun stuff, eh?  Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

On to other things:

I could not find an on-line picture of Lady Powis and her jacket, so, florentinescot , just for you, a close up of the edges of the jacket lapels:


If you enlarge the scan, you can see at the shoulders where the jacket ends under the lace collar. This is a high necked jacket, in the manner of the one worn by Dorothy St. John (large image). When the top is turned back, you get that distinctive V-neck look, and the top edges sit back in that manner. The lower necked jackets have a much rounder neckline. 

Tomorrow will be the last post I'll be making until after Pennsic, which means it will probably be remarkably content-free as my brain melts in anticipation of a week off and parties.  Just so you know.


( 47 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
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Jul. 30th, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
What an interesting and well timed article for me. I am currently working on some decent head coverings and just finished my first coif (the simple pattern from The Tudor Tailor). I want to make some more complicated ones now that I've put one together. Thanks for all of the excellent info.
Jul. 30th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome - it's as helpful for me to write this stuff out as it is for anyone else. 8)
Jul. 30th, 2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting these links and your input on the yahoo group was appreciated.

I've been researching nightcaps, which led into coifs, and was surprised when I could find so many portraits of men wearing the caps, as compared to women in the embroidered coifs. So far the count is 7, plus one possible tomb effigy. If I count the later caps, with just the wide lace brims I can add 6 more.

I will look forward to the Drury scan after Pennsic, Hope all the patterns sell :)!
Jul. 30th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
For years, I only knew of one nightcap pic (before I started looking, of course). I think the frequency differential is a combination of two things - men depicted in their nightcaps are going for an "at home" look - a sort of "see how rich I am?" thing, and women going for the same look usually have big hair (in that period), so their caps don't show the same way, and formal portraits have women in their full headgear, so the coif is covered or they're wearing something fancier, like a jewelled caul. But in the end, the pictures are out there. 8)
(no subject) - grnvixen - Jul. 30th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
Many of the coifs in paintings seem to be wired. I wonder if the extant ones, that have been flattened out to display the embroidery, originally had wire in them. I get a similar look to paintings with a piece of wire in the edge of my coif, which is shaped like one of the V&A ones.
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
They may have - it is simplicity itself to put a wire through the front hem, and a fine wire barely makes any impact on the fabric (as I found with mine). It is certainly a big fashion - it suits the large hair, and is madly flattering for the face.

*needs to make another one from finer linen*
(no subject) - mermaidlady - Jul. 30th, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Jul. 30th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jillwheezul - Jul. 30th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jillwheezul - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Jul. 31st, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
attifet - (Anonymous) - Jul. 31st, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: attifet - (Anonymous) - Jul. 31st, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 02:30 pm (UTC)
I've wondered if the reason we can't see a "coif" be it brodered or not on a gentlewoman/noblewoman is due mostly to the stance (usually full front or very slightly turned to one side) and because the front hair is up on large pads.

A period reference doesn't back this up but a postcard from the Globe Theatre showing the back view of a lady on the stage in full period dress (proper dress as opposed to theatrical) showed a lovely loose gown a la JA/V&A and also a little coif to match which sat neatly on the back of her head with the point pinned in behind the pads. I could clearly see the hair neatly coiffured onto the pads and could imagine that if I was looking at the lady from the front, I would not have seen ANYTHING of that coif.

I'll need to find the postcard (found it recently and not sure where it is now) and scan it in for you to see.

Where we see part of the headress of ladies like this and with padded hair, we are seeing the billiament of an Elizabethan hood - so, it is higher or nearly as high as the pads so is partially visible. A coif would not be higher so not visible at all.

Nothing to back this up - apart from making a coif, putting my hair up and then seeing what it looks like in photos. Or persuading the ladies in portraits to turn around so we can see their back view!

oooh - could look at some effigies too. Though most of them seem to prefer the Elizabethan french hood.

Edited at 2008-07-30 02:33 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
I've wondered if the reason we can't see a "coif" be it brodered or not on a gentlewoman/noblewoman is due mostly to the stance (usually full front or very slightly turned to one side) and because the front hair is up on large pads.

That is exactly it - there are a *bunch* of pics with just the lace showing around the edges of the hair. In my Elizabethan hairstyles article, I'm wearing a coif in all four photographs, but you can barely see them. With bigger hair, they'd be completely invisible.

(no subject) - attack_laurel - Jul. 30th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heatermcca - Jul. 30th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
so wait... you are telling me that there are types of Coifs that are not made of little rings of metal painstakingly hand fitted together to provide an inner layer of armor under a helm to protect the head and neck???


Who knew?

(going back to thinking about hitting people in armour and NOT the work I am supposed to be doing.... Seriously, how can I concentrate when I KNOW Pennsic is happening without me!!)
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - sinclairhawkins - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
I've seen the point to the back in period paintings more often, where front or back can be clearly identified, but it's possible it was worn both ways. If you like the pointy look, you can wear it point forward, under the coif, and the combination of hair and coif keeps it in place, while in turn, the f.cloth keeps the coif on.

I think there's no one way that's dead for certain the only way. Wear it how it works best for you.
(no subject) - mermaidlady - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mermaidlady - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
researchers looking for solid evidence - one line of research frequently informs another, and two theories can be right at the same time

I sooooo agree with you on that one. I think that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and that people found different solutions for the same problem. It is also very interesting to get all sorts of different feedback when doing a line of research. It makes it all the more complete. :-)
Jul. 30th, 2008 06:04 pm (UTC)
Or, as I try to make my mantra, so I don't get obnoxious:

There is no one, true way.
Jul. 30th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
Aesome article.

Have I ever pointed out to you the coif and forecloth in the Museum of Scotland? (for some reason it isn't part of their online collection catalogue.)
Jul. 30th, 2008 04:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, I have seen that set. They are pretty! The coiling design seems to be so universal, that I wonder if a small number of professional shops were turning out at least the patterns on a massive basis - or if the collective 16th century unconscious suddenly rose up, screamed "Vines, by God, Vines!" and was still.
(no subject) - reasdream - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - holyschist - Aug. 5th, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Aug. 12th, 2008 10:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - grnvixen - Jul. 30th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
"Embroiderer's Story" -- that's about the only T. Beck book that I don't have. I've got "Embroiderer's Flowers" and the Gardens book ("Gardens of Silk and Gold" I think). Do you recommend it?

You said "(This is how new theories start: I have an idea - is it sound? I look for evidence - is there any? I interpret evidence - am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing? I filter for wishful thinking - am I manipulating the evidence to fit my theory? I draw a conclusion - which can be changed if new evidence appears.) "

and the only thing that you "left out" was test your theory. That's a very concise and succinct summary of the scientific method. It can be a Royal Pain to get that process through to students. *sigh*

Thank you so much for this article. Have fun at Pennsic!

FTR, I am *not* pointing that twit here. If she so much as thinks about stepping out of line, I'm gonna moderate the snot out of her.

Jul. 30th, 2008 05:58 pm (UTC)
What a very useful and interesting article - thank you!!

Jul. 30th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
*snerkle* It's fun to finally watch somebody else have Butterfly Brain in mid-post. I thought it was a malady unique to me.

I've got umpteen white-worked headdresses in Dutch portraits (saved on the computer than my hubby is stripping and resotring, natch. Though there are some further back in my blog). One, and only one, has a lace coif with a headscarf pinned over it that's so sheer you can see the lace beneath. If you could get up close and personal with the portrait, you could probably replicate the reticella pattern pretty precisely. The others often seem to have a solid coif with an embroider over-veil/scarf. Not sure what, if anything, the difference means. Something I mean to delve into, once I get back to sleeping regularly, and get the Noord-Holland stuff webbed.
Jul. 30th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the article - especially the link to the white work coif and the under coif. That seems like a brilliant idea. Now I can't wait to get off work and try to wire a coif into a heart shape!
Jul. 30th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC)
Great article!
Haven't done nearly as much research or even thinking about coifs/etc as I should because I didn't "get" the pics of the flat ones - now I have the proper "thread" to actually see what I'm looking at.
And sometimes am entirely too SCA-related, and cut everything off at 1600...yum, many many new portraits to look at.....mmmmmmmmmm
Jul. 30th, 2008 09:39 pm (UTC)
Another source for you!
This article triggered something in my brain, and sure enough, I found another source for you!

My LJ posting is relegated to my BlackBerry, so there isn't any way I could scan it...

Portrait of Mary Throckmorton, Lady Scudamore by Marcus Gheeraerts, 1614 or 1615. Found in The Art of Dress, by Jane Ashelford, copyright 1996, page 12.

Lady Scudamore is wearing a sheer silk cap heavily trimmed in some really gorgeous lace. Under the sheer silk at the very crown of her head, one can see scarletwork embroidery. I don't believe the embroidery is on the silk, but rather underneath it on a separate coif because the pattern is broken up and very faint -- however, the scan makes it clear that the pattern is very nonlinear and vinelike, just like the embroidery on Lady Scudamore's doublet.

So there you go: more ammo.
Jul. 30th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Another source for you!
I love that icon! :-)

I'm gonna have to look up that painting .....
Re: Another source for you! - sorchekyrkby - Jul. 30th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Another source for you! - attack_laurel - Jul. 31st, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Another source for you! - sorchekyrkby - Jul. 31st, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Another source for you! - attack_laurel - Aug. 12th, 2008 10:50 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 31st, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
You see a lot of those whitework coif-under a coif in Flemish (?) art.


I want to see that painting in color! The one that you scanned from B/W. I wanna see that shirt/shift! (Why yes, I *am* a Visual Learner. Why do you ask?)

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