Covering the head indoors and outside was considered important for modesty and health. Women of all classes wore close fitting coifs. Earlier Elizabethan coifs tended to be unembroidered but embroidered versions became fashionable for more well-off and élite women between the 1590s and 1620s. With their simple construction, they were perfect for displaying embroidery skills and demonstrating the virtue gained though making one’s own dress accessories. Embroiderers could use a design from a pattern book or sampler or pay a pattern drawer for an inked-out design. In the 1620s, a pattern drawer charged 4d for ‘drawing 2 coifs for my lady’s’.[i] Coifs and other headwear was also available ready-made for those too busy or unskilled to work their own. Frances, Countess of Hereford, bought an embroidered cap from Mrs Price in the Strand, London.[ii] Coifs could be bought from haberdashers around the country although it is unclear whether these were embroidered.[iii]
Coifs were sufficiently meaningful to be given as gifts and sufficiently cherished to be bequeathed as mementos. Lady Katherine Stanhope’s 1620 will reveals a network of familial relationships and gift exchange. She bequeathed the black silk embroidered coif ‘wrought with black silk and gold with bone-lace to edge it’ to her daughter Cockayne, which Cockayne had previously given to her mother as New Year’s gift. Her daughter Dorothy was bequeathed the gold coif which Lady Katherine received from her cousin Barbara.[iv]
This coif has a typical construction with a top seam, gathered at the back to allow for space for the wearer’s coiled-up hair. The front edges, decorated in metal thread braid stitch, are curved so the ears and cheeks are covered. The drawstring in the neck edge carrier would have tied at the back. The undyed plain weave linen ground is typical as is the silver or silver gilt wrapped metal threads. However, the yellow of the soft floss silk is a more unusual colour choice. Stitches include braid stitches, chain, Cretan and double running. The background is scattered with small circles of applied metal thread with a central ‘spider’ interlace interspersed with once shiny sequins.
Many coif designs contain floral motifs in continuous scrolling coils so these large stand-alone floral motifs are unusual. The rose, borage and stylised flower, possibly a sunflower, have triple pointed stems and leaves and are placed side by side in rows. The repeat is offset vertically by one in each row. As is customary, the design is not worked to fit to coif’s sides but ‘bleeds’ off the edge, creating an imaginary continuous pattern.
[i] Glasgow Museums (n.d.) 17th Century Coifs. Online, collections.glasgowmuseums.com.clo.html?cid=53485 [accessed 10 September 2014].
[ii] HMC Seymour Papers at Longleat, Vol 4 (4 November 1603), 164. Cited in Ashelford, J. 1988. Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I. London: Batsford, 84.
[iii] Hamilton, P. 2007. Haberdashery for Use in Dress 1580-1800. Phd thesis, University of Warwick, p., 175-6.
[iv] The National Archive. Last Will and Testament of Lady Katherine Stanhope. Prob 11/137 7 September 1619, codicil 7 April 1620, probated 9 June 1621. Modern spelling transcript copyright ©2010 Nina Green All Rights Reserved. www.oxford-shakespeare.com/Probate/PROB_11-137_ff_434-6.pdf [accessed 10 September 2014].
Photo: Coif, silk and metal threads and metal sequins on linen; 86.5 (outer circumference, 23.8 (height) 22.8 (width) Provenance: purchased 1977