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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Blackwork Coif

Object 48 - perhaps one of the finest examples of blackwork embroidery ever seen in England

Peter Hewitt
SBT 1994-31: An early seventeenth-century coif cap with blackwork and gilt thread embroidered flowers, 24 x 42 cm, 1600-30, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
SBT 1994-31: An early seventeenth-century coif cap with blackwork and gilt thread embroidered flowers, 24 x 42 cm, 1600-30, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality

(Henry V, Act 1, Scene 1)

Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts.

(Othello, Act 3, Scene 4)

This week’s object is perhaps one of the finest examples of blackwork embroidery ever seen in England.  A series of black threaded petals, leaves and stamen are unified by curling and twisting coils of silver and gilt thread, which terminate in beautifully observed wildflowers, including columbine, rose hips, flowering rose, pea, foxglove, hazelnuts and wild strawberries.  They decorate a coif, or ladies bonnet-style cap, which was probably made in the early 1600s.  Given the astonishing quality and the intricacy of the design, it is possible that it was made by one of the professional Broders’ Companies, or embroiderers’ guilds, established by Elizabeth in the 1560s – however it is probably the work of a noblewoman, or female member of the wealthy and leisured merchant classes.

Blackwork refers to the use of black silk thread on a white linen ground, and was thought to have been popularised in England by Catherine of Aragon; indeed these designs, seen on jerkins, hats, gloves and petticoats, were termed ‘Spanish Work’ by Tudor men and women.  Although blackwork was an  art-form associated with foreign regal style, it should also be seen as an expression of a long tradition of embroidery in England, which during the medieval period, revelled in realistic representations of animals, birds, flowers and foliage.

detail of embroidery on coif cap
Detail of embroidery

The makers’ love of the natural world can be seen in this object, with the forms of the flowers evoking both the perfection of nature, but also its variety.  Inside each of the black threaded outlines, tiny stitches give volume and surface detail to the flora.  The plumpness of the rose hip can be inferred via a series of circular designs, whilst the small undulations of two peas inside their pod are conveyed by spheres of chain stitching.  Perhaps most impressive – and surely the central focus of the design – are the three wild strawberries in the central band.  Here we see astonishing virtuosity in needlework, a technique called plaited braid stitching.  As the light catches the surface, the hollows of the stitch remind us of the slight depressions on the surface of the berry where the pip nestles, and in other places its whiteness shines forth from the glinting thread.

Another cap in the collection, with crescent moon and fish motifs, gives a sense of how caps like this were worn.  The gilt cap would have been worn quite high upon the head, with about two inches of hair visible.  Sometimes an additional ‘crosscloth’ was worn over the top or underneath.  In practice, coifs could be worn in a variety of ways, depending on the mood, occasion and desired effect.  This coif shows signs of picking along the peak which suggests it was once customised with trimming; most likely a bobbin lace trim, which was removed because of damage, or simply reused for another item of clothing.

SBT 1992-6: Cap, textile 1601-1700 (c.), The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Coifs were both practical and symbolic.  They kept the hair neat and provided warmth both in and outside the house.  They also conveyed status.  According to some moralists and guardians of decorum, it was appropriate that single women should go bareheaded, and that their hair be worn long; according to William Phiston’s Schoole of Goode manners (1609) hair cut above the collar was a sign of sexual immorality. On the other hand, the coif appears to have been a requirement for married women as it reflected their superior status; married women were householders, and managers of household production; important members of society contributing to the commonwealth of all.

The coif also indicated modesty. The early modern historian Amanda Flather notes that in fights between women, the ripped coif pulled from the opponent’s head was in itself an accusation of sexual disgrace.*  The wild strawberry, with its tendency to grow close to the ground, among worms and creeping plants, was seen by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as an example of incorruptible virtue, which radiated sweetness and beauty even to the nettle. Desdemona’s handkerchief, sewn by an ancient sibyl with strawberries dyed red with the blood of virgins, was for Othello a talismanic object, upholding or denying his wife’s fidelity. For the wearer of this coif, the decoration was therefore hugely significant.  As she walked with head inclined downwards, with ‘a reverend carriage and gesture’ – as William Gouge imagined women in his Domesticall duties (1622) – the central design of strawberries would have been even more pronounced.  This message of virtue and modesty was important to both the wearer and her contemporaries; but the loving observation of nature, and the significance of those lonely industrious hours spent perfecting this incredible work of embroidered art, are just as important and can be seen and felt in this object today.

* Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England, (Rochester, NY: 2007), pp. 125-128.