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woman's embroidered linen coif

English, ca. 1600

An admirable example of careful technique and elaborate ornament, this coif of the late Elizabethan period demonstrates not only the proficiency of the domestic English embroiderer, but also the nuances of thematic personal expression. Abstract ideas revealed through visual imagery were an essential form of communication in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; as it pertained to dress, symbolism was often conveyed through combinations of color and motif. As illustrated by this coif, an informal type of woman’s cap, costume articles embellished with bright botanical themes can be viewed simply as decorative, or as objects infused with deeper symbolic meaning.

Embroidery was an intimate medium through which to express personality, allegiances or associations; the flowers that decorate this coif probably held special significance to the wearer. Contained within a network of vigorously coiled stems and arabesques of silver-gilt braidstitch are buds and blossoms of flowers commonly grown in English gardens. The eglantine, a single five-petaled variety of rose, was emblematic of purity and chastity. Carnations, exotic imports from the East, were connotative of love, affection or even betrothal, whereas the cornflower suggested delicacy and refinement. Pansies (so-called after the French, pensée) symbolized kind thoughts, making them appropriate motifs for a coif. The flowers’ colors were also meaningful: the cobalt and pale blues of the cornflower likely stood for amity, while the deep red of the roses signaled passionate love or courage. Pink also represented love, but of a more tender sort. The purple of the pansies (most of which has since faded to beige) hinted at spirituality and noble intentions. Though yellow and green could express jealousy, their appearance in the verdant foliage symbolizes youthful good health, fecundity and joy.

Parts of the embroidery are executed in satin stitch or delineated with stem stitch, but the majority of motifs are worked in detached buttonhole filling. This labor-intensive technique requires precision and consistency—derived from needlelace-making, it was a specialty of English embroiderers. Finishing details imbue the coif with a magical air: couched spirals of metal-wrapped thread accent the buds and flowers’ centers, and tiny spangles shimmer like stars against the linen ground. A coif with forehead cloth in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, Scotland (29/134) features embroidered vines and flowers comparable to those seen on this fine piece.

woman's embroidered linen coif detail
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