The Ultimate One Pattern Piece Project: Elizabethan Coif

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.

Inspiration

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.

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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

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Illustrated in Microsoft Office Word  for your convenience and pleasure!

Large_Coif 1I 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:

Paper 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.

Paper Pattern Test

Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!

Large_Coif 2Since 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!

Embroidered Shirt

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.

Unpicking Stitches

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.

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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.

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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.

Large_Coif 4The 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.

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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.

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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.

Coif Top Seam

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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.

Done!

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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!

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HSF Breakdown

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
Year: 1600-1630
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

UPDATE!

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Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.

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Facebook circa 1595: Fashion Plates of the 16th Century

From the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier

Sadly, LACMA (the museum currently holding this wonderful book) has since changed their collections and removed all of the photos of the book’s contents from their website. The only places to find pictures now is elsewhere on the web where smarter researchers and bloggers downloaded the pictures rather than linking directly from the now-defunct museum archive pages. I am leaving this post here in the hopes that LACMA will one day re-post photos, but until then, you’ll only get to see my vague translations for pictures you can no longer see. :(

I explore hundreds of online museum items a week, digging up historical sources for my research, and sometimes I start feeling like I’ve seen it all. Then–it never fails–I find something amazing. For example, this:

Vedua di Bolloga, circa 1595
“Bolloga” may in fact be Bolonga. There was a  wealthy Vedua family living there in the 16th century

Renaissance Fashion plates! Or, more accurately, Renaissance portraits of real people. It’s thrilling to see such early sketches depicting what people were really wearing. They are not quite as detailed as a professionally painted portrait in oils, but these simple gouache pictures provide a fascinating look at late 16th century fashions.

Le Ceuallier de Angleterre an son habit de lordre, circa 1595
“lordre” is probably “l’ordre” which means of the order, so this Englishman is wearing the “dress of his order.”

These images all come from the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier. Amicorium is Latin for “of  friends,” so this Italian folio is titled Album of Friends of a German Soldier. Albums amicorum are early versions of autograph books which originated in Germany. Usually these albums have heraldic marks or notes only, but some are elaborate portrait collections like this album. Albums amicorum are the Facebook of the 16th century. A traveler would sketch a picture of a person and then “tag” the picture with their name or title, so when he returned home, he would have a record of people he’d met. And golly did this German soldier meet some interesting people in some beautiful fashions!

Here are some of my favorites:

Unknown noblewoman (possibly of Naples or Rome) looking in a mirror, circa 1595

Cortegiana Veneta, circa 1595
“Courtier in Mourning.” The modern spelling is “Cortigiana” which can mean either courtier or courtesan

Donzela Ferarese, circa 1595
“Donzela” is Portuguese and “Ferrarese” is Italian. Together they mean “Maiden of Ferrara

Sposa Venetiana…terra, circa 1595
A “Venitian Bride” and she’s wearing a white wedding gown!

Gentildona Venetiana come vano nele lor case, circa 1595
If this phrase is actually spelled “come vanno nel loro case,” then this is a sketch of a “Venetian Gentlewoman as she goes into their home”

Donzela di Napolli, circa 1595
“Maiden of Naples” with a beautiful pastel color palette.

Donzela Veronese, circa 1595
“Maiden of Verona.” Perhaps this is what Shakespeare’s Juliet would have looked like! It’s from the correct decade and everything. I love the veil on her collar/headdress.

La Consorte del Castelan di Roma, circa 1595
“The Consort of the Castellan of Rome.” A castellan is “the governor or captain of a castle.”

This album has a variety of origins: the titles are mostly in Italian mixed with French or Portuguese terms, the artist is supposedly a German soldier, and a few of the portraits are of English nobility. I have tried to roughly transcribe and translate the handwritten names for you. I think knowing who you’re looking at makes history much more real! If you find any mistaken identities (some of those letters can be darned tricky), let me know.

Did you notice how severely divided and high the front of their hair was styled? Though their dress styles vary vastly by region, their hairstyle is the one thing these ladies all have in common. Also, if you look at the rather swayed-back ladies, you will notice how long their skirts are in proportion to the rest of them and even in comparison to the other ladies. This is because many of these fashionable Italians would have been wearing tall chopines under their lengthy skirts.

A satirical etching card of a courtesan with a flap that lifts to reveal her underpinnings, circa 1588

Both “ladies of good character” and courtesans wore chopines which were both a status symbol and a fetish. These tall shoes made more room to display fancy, expensive fabrics.

This album amicorum reminds me of the sketch books I see lots of people carrying around at events. I have a little notebook of my own that I take everywhere in my purse so I can jot down quick doodles and notes, though I do not collect autographs of the people I sketch…yet. I’m going to start my own album amicorum next time I travel somewhere exciting. I think it will be a little more intimate and fun than just posting pictures on Facebook!

(Also, notice how most of the portraits in this album face left? That indicates that the artist  of this album was probably right handed!)