An English Coif with Embroidery

This week I thought we’d take a look at a specific object. In particular an English coif from the collection of the Metropolitain Museum of Art, Antonio Ratti Textile Center.


Fig 1: Coif, 64.101.1238 English, last quarter 16th century, W 8 ½ X L 6 ½ inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Irwin Untemyer, 1964.

This woman’s hat, known as a coif, shows embroidery in gold, black, and silver thread on a plain weave (or tabby) linen ground (Fig. 1). The design consists of crudely stitched flora and fauna with meandering curvilinear vines and scrollwork. While the vines curve, the figures have jagged edges and sharp angles. The design does not have a recognizable or repeated pattern per say, but the figures are in the same positions on the left and rights sides of the coif (though the figures themselves are not precisely identical). Approximately eight types of embroidery techniques are used to create the design. Most of the gold on the thread has tarnished or worn away, revealing the metallic core. The coif itself has hand rolled hems and is gathered at the neck. The seam, sewn with a creamy yellow thread, travels from the front to the back along the top of the head ending in a thin, linen covered, wooden disc at the crown. The linen is also gathered around this disc to provide fit.

Fauna represented includes abstractions of animals commonly seen or hunted in the English countryside. These include a stag, a fox, a small bear, a peacock or turkey (or perhaps a palm-like fan), and other quadrupeds. The Flora represented are further abstracted and could be roses, honeysuckle, and acorns. A guitar or similar musical instrument also appears at the back of the coif. Black thread is used as the outline of the figures as well as for the vines or scrollwork. Black thread is also more densely used for shadowing. Several of the individual figures are encircled by black stitching. The gold and silver threads are/were used minimally for highlights.


Figure 2: English Triangular forehead cloth. Linen Embroidered with black silk. Early 17th Century. Victoria and Albert Museum. (Benn, Elizabeth. Treasures from the Embroiderers’ Guild Collection).

Often referred to as “blackwork,” this type of Embroidery was common during the period and included floral and animal motifs (Fig 2). Other women’s and men’s headwear from the period included in the Antonio Ratti Textile Center have more refined and elaborate decoration and often have repeating patterns. Many motifs of the period were copied from herbal or pattern books and may have held any number of symbolistic meanings. Seen in figures three and four, these pieces show a similar use of gilded threads as well as floral motif’s and similar stitching techniques. Given the roughness of the work on this piece, and the use of so many types of embroidery, I speculate that this may have been created by someone new to the craft.


Figure 3.: English Man’s Cap of white linen with embroidery in silk and silver-gilt threads. Late 16th or early 17th Century. L. 5 ½ by w. 7 ½ inches. Rogers Fund, 1926. MMA, Antonio Ratti Textile Center (26.29).


Figure 4. Black and white English coif, Last quarter 16th Century. Silk on Linen. L 8 ½ by 6 ½ inches. Gift of Irwen Untemyer, 1964. Antonio Ratti Textile Center, MMA.

English embroidery had become well known during the Middle Ages for its quality and by late sixteenth century had become quite detailed. Queen Elizabeth was known to favor black and white embroidery which was often enhanced with gold thread or other metallic’s. She, and Mary Queen of Scots are also known for their own skill at embroidery. Many portraits of the Queen and persons of rank show the popularity of black-work in various garments, though coifs are not seen. A later portrait of “The Lacemaker” by Caspar Netscher shows a Dutch version of a black-work coif. The coif became popular between 1500 and 1550 and was generally worn under a peaked or gabled hood. They were also typically used for “domestic embroidery” and were worn at home or when receiving in bed.


  • “Hastings Museum, Hastings, England, 1913, British Needlework from the 16th Century Onward,” no. 49, pl3.


Bath, Virginia Churchill. Embroidery masterworks; classic patterns and techniques for contemporary application. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., n.d.

Burnham, Dorothy K. Warp and Weft. New York: Scribner, 1981.

Edwards, Ralph & L. G. G. Ramsey (eds), THE TUDOR PERIOD 1500-1603. New York : Reynal & Co., 1957.

Jourdain, M. The History Of English Secular Embroidery (1912). London: KeganPaul, Trench, Turubner, and Co. 1910.

King, Donald and Santina Levey. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750. New York: Canopy Books, 1993.

Parker, Rozsika.The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Raggio, Olga. Highlights of the silver in the Untermyer Collection of English and continental decorative arts. Exhibition held at: New York, NY, USA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29 Sept 1977-June 1978.

Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design. Western European Embroidery in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum: The Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of Design. Smithsonian Museum, 1978.

Wells-Cole, Anthony. Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625 (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in Britis). New Haven : Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 1997

[1] Bath, 43

[2] Parker, 71.

[3] Boucher, 235.

[4] Raggio, 193.

[5] Mary Queen of Scots also studied under Catherine de Medici who was known as an accomplished embroiderer (Parker, 73-75).

[6] Bath, 43.

[7] Bath, 43.

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