6 Steps to Fabulous!
Once again, I am breaking my vow to keep HSF posts off of my blog. However, this project has actually been on my plate for quite some time and by some miracle, it’s completion happened to coincide with HSF Challenge #11.
Since my costume fascination began, my favorite era has been the 17th Century. In particular, I fell in love with blackwork. However, I am incredibly inept at embroidery, almost to the point of being that cliché historical fiction character that scandalizes her family by acting like a impetuous tomboy…
Extras inside indeed: an extra dose of terrible embroidery skills and stubbornness, that is.
…okay, so that really would be me…
Though I have no embroidery skills, I do have enough hand-sewing skills to make me a decent small-scale seamstress. Combined with my love of the 17th Century, blackwork, hats and thrift, I have the perfect set of skills to be a decent coif maker, or at least an excellent blackwork coif faker.
I started this project without a pattern, just pictures and measurements from various online museums. I basically followed my wobbly seamstress instincts. The subsequent tutorial follows the method I developed to create my coif.
Detail of “Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck
Besides her pretty coif, notice how tightly the wire of her headdress is pressing into her cheeks.
English Woman’s Blackwork Coif, circa 1600
Top Stitching and Gathering Detail on an English Woman’s Coif, circa 1590-1610
(see Step 5)
Women’s Coifs showing repetitive patterns and a variety of shapes, circa 1600
Another pair of similar coifs are also in the V&A, notable for one’s bottom edge: “Along the bottom edge, instead of a turned casing there are a series of loops braided in linen bread and stitched to the coif.” Another option for Step 4!
How to Make an Elizabethan/17th Century Coif
I used newsprint to create my pattern. Coifs from this period come in a variety of shapes, but most are based on a simple rectangle of fabric cut into a gentle urn shape. The top of the urn forms a widow’s peak at the top of the head and the curved bulge covers the ears. You can make your shape as simple or extreme as you like. Here’s my pattern:
You can test the paper pattern by pinning the top edges together. Bear in mind that the fabric coif will be smaller because of your seams.
Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!
Since I cannot embroider well enough, I prefer to use pre-embroidered fabric. Finding a pre-embroidered fabric with a proper motif and decent colors on a suitable fabric can be a real challenge, but I was lucky enough to find an embroidered cotton shirt for $3 at the local thrift shop. While it’s not perfect, it’s close enough!
After two weeks of searching for the perfect blackwork fabric, this is probably the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen in my life. If finding an embroidered fabric is too difficult, you can use plain linen or silk.
I plucked the seams out, leaving me with enough fabric to make about 4 coifs.
Chinese machine embroidery is fairly easy to unpick, but it did leave prick marks down the edges and where there were darts. A little steam ironing helped make them less noticeable.
I can make two coifs from the back panel and one from each of the front panels.
For my lining, I used some cheap cotton sheeting from my stash. Elizabethan coifs could be lined or unlined. Many had removable linings so when the inside got dirty, the lining could be removed and washed, saving the delicately embroidered outside from wear and tear. Since my fashion fabric is completely washable, I sewed the lining into my coif as a permanent feature.
I really wish I’d taken more construction pictures, but I was too excited to pause for photos. I sewed my coif using backstitches set about 3/8 inch away from the fabric edge for clean seams. If your lining has a right side, make sure it faces teh right side of your fashion fabric so when you turn it inside out, it faces the proper way.
The drawstring casing can be done multiple ways, but just turning up the bottom edge worked best for my coif. I used backstitching again to close the casing because it’s strong and you can manipulate the stitches so that they hardly show up on the outside of the fabric. Since the seam can be seen from the outside of the coif, I made sure the outside stitches were as small as possible.
This is the front edge of my coif, showing the smooth seam you get when you use the “pillow” sewing method to connect your lining. To make the front edges crisp, iron them from the lining side before and after sewing the drawstring casing. You can see the stitches on the inside of the drawstring casing on the right.
This is the most complicated-looking step, but it’s actually rather simple. You’ve already finished 2/3 of the top edges by sewing them in step 3, so all you need to do is whipstitch the very top edge shut with small stitches. When you reach the end of you finished edge, sew around the unfinished edges. You can adjust how your coif fits by gathering more or less fabric. Gathering less fabric will make the coif pointy at the back while gathering more will give it a rounder look.
I used bias tape fror my drawstrings because it was what I had immediately on hand, but you can make ties out of yarn, linen tape, twill tape, shoelace, or braided cord. Threading your ties can be tricky. Some people like to use safety pins while others use wire to help guide it through the casing. I used a cheap, thin pair of tweezers to hold one end of my drawstring while I used the other end of the tweezers like a giant needle, pushing it through the casing.
I would like to trim my next coif with a little bit of lace along the front by sewing it inside the seams in step 3. I would also like some twill tape for ties instead of my last-minute bias-tape drawstring, and to take pictures with the strings wrapped around the top like they are supposed to be worn. But for a blind first attempt, I’m rather proud of it!
17th Century “Blackwork” Coif
The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Fabric: A thrifted cotton shirt with cotton machine embroidery lined with even more cotton!
Pattern: I basically just measured a rectangle using coifs documented at the V&A and cut a light “urn” curve into the sides
Notions: Cotton thread and bias tape
How historically accurate is it? 50% It’s not linen or silk, but it is all natural fibers. The embroidery pattern is entirely modern, but from a distance, if you squint, it looks fairly legitimate. The construction method is pretty accurate as is the size and how it sits; however, I have much more hair than this coif can contain. It will sit on my head by itself, but I feel more comfortable tying it on so I don’t feel like it’s constantly going to fall off. Next time I will make the coif a bit deeper or try using hair pins to hold it on.
Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: By me…at 3am…in my apartment
Total cost: $3 for the embroidered shirt, stash sheeting, and stash thread
A matching forehead cloth would also be nice, and I have plenty of fabric left over for at least one!
Coif and Forehead Cloth, circa 1610
More Coif Tutorials and Information
“Full-length Coif Tutorial” – All of the steps from this page in one looooong image
“The Coif Question” by Kate at Dressing Terpsichore – Explains why most extant coifs are one-piece, but most paintings appear to have two-piece coifs
“Elizabethan Coifs!” by Morgan Donner – Examples of how a coif should be worn with a forehead cloth to get the proper look
“Coif Patterns” at No Strings Attached – Multiple patterns for different styles of coifs
Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.
April 8, 2013
Some Other Color than “Gold”
The Renaissance and Baroque periods were immensely ornate. Deep colors were indulged in and everyone rich enough to afford them was donning clothes made of a ransom’s worth of fine silks, velvets, pearls, and gemstones. Why should gold be left naked? Though we sometimes feel that enameling is tacky looking (thanks in part to terrible mass-produced Christmas pins), the enamel artisans of the late-16th and 17th century achieved a look that is anything but cheap!
Enameled Gold Pendant with Rock Crystals and Pearls, circa 1610-20
Enameled Gold Cross Pendant with Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearl, circa 1610-20
Enameled Gold Ornament with Pearls, circa 1600
Small enameled gold ornaments like this would be sewn directly onto clothing. Many were later converted to have brooch-backs made, especially in the 19th century when Renaissance Revival style swept through European fashion.
Enameled Gold Brooch (later conversion) with Diamond and Pearls, circa 1610
Enamel work was often mixed in with precious stones. Even if the front of a piece was paved with large table cut gems, the smallest tongue of gold that showed between the stones would be covered with enamel. Early jewels are covered in bold, primary colors like deep red, bright blue, emerald green, fiery yellow-orange. Most pieces before 1660 feature enamel work applied to sculpted, 3-dimentional pieces. Though the actual thickness of the metal may not have been great, the combination of careful sculpting and enamel gave the pieces depth and presence. Many of the larger pendants were made and worn in Spain. Spaniards adored bold lines and colors. Their enamel work was often some of the most intricate and dense.
Enameled Gold Pendant (front and back) with Emeralds, circa 1650
The back of pieces were often more elaborately enameled than the front of the piece. Since almost all stones were placed in closed-back settings, there was plenty of space for the enamel artist to display his skills. Jewelry was made to be admired both on and off the body, so being beautiful from all sides was essential. Because enamel is made of fused glass particles, the colors do not fade as readily as other paints and pigments, so a piece enameled over 500 years ago will have colors as brilliant as the day they were fired. Bright colors were, of course, very popular, but the all-time favorite color combo was the dynamic duo black and white.
Enameled Gold Monogram Pendant (front and back) with Lapis Lazuli and Paste stones, circa 1600-30
Enameled Gold Ring with Garnet, circa 1550-1600
Rings, though small, almost always had at least a touch of enamel on the shank. Many of the gold rings from between 1500 and 1700 once had colorful enameled designs on the band and were not as plain as they appear today (it’s kind of like the famous Grecian marbles which we always admire for their clean, white simplicity, but many were brightly painted). The enamel wore off after years of wear, often helping save the metal underneath from damage or erosion, especially on silver pieces.
Enameled Gold Ring with portraits of Anne of Austria and her son (King Louis XIV), circa 1625
Enameled Gold Frame around an Enameled Gold Holy Shroud Scene under Crystal, circa 1650
During the 17th century, small scenes stamped or sculpted of thin, enameled metal set behind panes of rock crystal or glass soared in popularity. Religious scenes, mementos mori, and symbols of love were popular themes. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, versions of these rock crystal jewels called Stuart Crystals made from woven locks of the king’s hair or his portrait became immensely popular among Royalists. Later monarchs were also honored in this manner, including Queen Mary and William III.
Rock Crystal Pendant commemorating the Death of William III, circa 1702
Enameled Gold Memento Mori Pendant, circa 1660
A popular motif since ancient times, the memento mori gained huge popularity as early Christian morality took hold of Europe. The focus on life after death was a big theme and the pivotal moment of death–the last moment to escape from the bonds of sin and hell–was an important event. The Latin “memento mori” roughly translates to “remember death.” Pendants, charms, and rings served as daily reminders of the fragility of life and the need to both live well and/or righteously. Due to their connections with death and the afterlife, memento mori motifs like the skull, skeleton, and crossbones also served as symbols of mourning.
Enameled Gold Mourning Ring surrounding a Lock of Hair, circa 1661
Enameled Silver Miniature Case, circa 1660
Enamel wasn’t just applied to gold. Silver gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as light blues and pinks came into fashion. A cheaper alternative to gold, silver was often used to make more utilitarian objects, such a chains and cases for sewing kits. The miniature case is an early incarnation of the locket. It is larger and deeper than a modern locket and would have held a portrait miniature, a popular aristocratic gift to send to friends, family, patrons, or lovers. Many of these cases reveal the trend towards more painterly decoration than enamel work of the earlier half of the century, which focused on accenting shapes rather than being the focal point of the design.
Enameled Gold Miniature Case, circa 1650-1660
Enameled Gold Bow Pendant with Ruby and Pearl drop, circa 1630-1660
Enameled Gold Badge, circa 1650-75
Enameled Gold Pendant with Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and Diamonds, circa 1680-1700
By the 1680s, enameling styles had changed. The major difference between earlier pieces (those from before 1660) and later pieces (those after 1660) is that the way the enameling is applied slowly began to change as tastes in fashion changed. Stones and enamel were no longer melded together so freely, though the style remained relatively common in Spain and Germany. France was rapidly rising in power, bringing with it lighter, more romantic tastes in color and texture. By the mid 18th century, almost all decorative enamel work is smooth and is painted on relatively flat, 2-dimentional surfaces rather than the highly sculpted surfaces of the centuries before.
Enameled Watch and Case, circa 1686-1700
All of the pieces featured in this article are from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can find many, many more beautiful examples of enamel from different eras by using the handy advanced search option to narrow your search by year, technique, material, or object type.
(Note to American researchers: Use “jewellery” instead of “jewelry” as a search keyword. The former is the British spelling of the word and the V&A, being British, does not recognize the American spelling as well)
For more examples of Renaissance enameled jewels, you can also check out the Jewel Book of the Duchess Anna of Bavaria.