On the Making of a Coif

Published in January 2013 issue of Dragon’s Tale

Filippa Birgersdotter in the coifThe story of the embroidered coif that Viscountess Filippa Birgersdotter can be seen wearing to the left starts quite a long time ago. At Aros sewing circle one Saturday (quite soon after the publication of “Patterns of Fashion 4” by Janet Arnold in November 2008) we decided to have a coif theme. After extensive tests it turned out that pattern #48 from PoF 4 fit my, Filippa’s and Helwig’s heads. We all decided we wanted coifs and forehead cloths, and they should be embroidered!

Somehow, I started with making one set as a gift for Helwig Ulfsdotter’s elevation to the Order of the Laurel in June 2009, using a simple all-over stem stitch vine in red silk as the decoration. Then I made one set as a gift for Mary verch Thomas’ elevation to the order of the Pelican in January 2010, using a blackwork only pattern from PoF 4, again in red silk.

The next project, I said, would definitely be for myself, “unless Filippa would go and get herself made Princess or something”. At Winter Games, March of 2010, she inspired Eirik Hårfager to win the Nordmark Coronet Tourney. The benefit this time was that I could ask her what she would prefer on her coif, the previous two having been surprises. Extant coif at the V&A
Image ©
Victoria and Albert Museum,
Since she is a woman who knows her mind, Filippa could tell me that what she wanted was a version of an extant coif (T.27-1975) displayed in the V&A museum in London. The original is embroidered with black silk in outline and speckling stitches and gold thread in a few different metal thread stitches. Filippa wanted it black and white, rather than gold, and provided me with the DMC metallic thread (Art. 283) which comes in spools of 40 metres. The silk I used was Splendor strandable 12-ply silk. I divided it and used two strands, so each length of thread goes six times the distance, which turned out rather economical. The fabric I used was the very fine hemp that Medeltidsmode used to carry.

Before I could start I had to get accurate images of the pattern, and thanks to the generosity of people in the SCA I managed to get photos of the coif on display at the V&A the day after I sent a mail asking for help of the Thamesreach group. I cannot thank Lady Katherine of Great Chesterford enough for her amazingly generous assistance.

The pattern sketched outI used the photos she got me to work out that the coif is embroidered with a vine-work with a set of twelve distinct floral motifs that was nearly big enough to cover the entire coif, but repeats at the edges. To get a pattern I could use I sketched out the coiling vine pattern onto gridded paper, and free-hand drew each of the twelve florals. This meant that I did not end up with a pattern exactly to the same scale as the original, as I adapted the height of the pattern to fit coif pattern #48 from PoF 4 in the same way as it fits on the original coif. I knew that coif #48 fit Filippa’s head, but I did not at this time have the dimensions of the V&A coif. It turns out that it is slightly smaller; 35 cm wide at the lower edge, and 20.5 cm high excluding the button-bar loops that gathers the coif.
In addition to the foliage Filippa liked the idea of little creatures running around, and she particularly likes squirrels. At this time I remembered another extant coif worked in red silk with speckling stitches and coiling vines and a magnificent squirrel. So when I transferred the pattern onto the fabric I added five squirrels running around the foliage, just for fun.

Stretched on frameBefore I could transfer the pattern, however, I had to prepare my fabric. It was washed first, then ironed and starched carefully. The starch helps the sheer fabric to keep its shape, protects the fabric from staining as you work on it, and also helps the pencil marks disappear after the first washing. To transfer the pattern I put my fabric over the paper pattern and drew on the hemp with a soft pure graphite pencil. Since the fabric is so sheer I had no problems seeing my pattern, and the pencil marks would not be permanent thanks to the starch. The period way would be to use ink on the outlines. Either overlay the fabric over the pattern and ink, or prick the pattern and pounce through it, and then ink. In addition to the coif, I also prepared a triangular forehead cloth, using the most common measurements of 20 x 40 cm, with the long front edge on the bias. A lesson learned from the previous two coif sets and subsequent research, which showed all forehead cloths I came across cut this way.

Lia at the embroideryTo start working on the actual embroidery, I had to have a frame. I could not use the standard round hoops, as they require you to move it across the surface and crush already finished embroidery to access new areas. Luckily my father has a well equipped wood-working shop and could make a slate frame to my requirements. It consists of two wide, flat stretchers and two square rollers. The stretchers has peg holes so you can adjust their length, and the rollers has fabric attached so you can firmly stitch your working fabric to it and stretch it evenly. Once this was done, it was a matter of time and more time. The outlines of the vines and flowers are all done using stem stitch, and all the flowers and leaves have shading done in speckling or speckle stitch. This part took me 49 hours and 30 minutes for the coif. The forehead cloth probably took another five hours, but I failed to keep track of the time, so it is only an estimate.

For the silver thread I had to do some re-construction of stitches. The main vines on this particular example uses a version of a long-armed cross stitch, which I figured out from looking at many close-ups of the extant coif, and also ceylon stitch and chain stitch. FinishedThere are a few others as well in the flower details, such as spiderweb stitch. This research resulted in my Elizabethan Metal Thread Embroidery (pdf) and a workshop at Aarnimetsä academy in 2010. Working with the metal thread I found that I had to use fairly short lengths, and I also applied a bit of clear nail varnish to the end to keep the thread from unraveling while I was working with it. I also wore cotton gloves to keep my body oils off the work, and while I did the blackwork I got up to wash my hands frequently. In between working on the frame I stored it in two clean pillow-cases to keep dirt and dust off it.

I estimate that the metal thread embroidery and finishing took another fifty hours work, but I did not manage to keep track of this. To finish the coif I finally cut it off the frame, leaving a small seam allowance all around. I double folded in the edges, and hemmed it with white linen thread, and then went over the front and top edges with an edging stitch in black silk. The lower edge I hemmed and then made buttonhole-bar loops all along the lower edge to run a gathering thread through.

Photo Gallery

For images I may not have linked to, close-ups and overviews et cetera please have a look at the photo gallery.