Saturday, January 26, 2008

Coifs (also called Biggins)

EDIT: Coherent summary of my coif research available here

I spent this afternoon researching and making a coif (pronounced kwaf, I'm told). Coifs were little skullcaps worn by both men and women in the medieval times. It served the purpose of both keeping one's hair out of the way (and probably keeping lice under control) and of helping to keep one warm. Coifs were traditionally white or off white and could be made out of linen, silk or similar fabric. However, upper class ladies could occasionally have a colored coif. Colors became more common as time progressed, but were always the exception, not the norm.

The coif pattern is almost always depicted in drawings as though it were more than piece. However, the remaining historical coifs are ALL once piece, so the idea of a two or three piece pattern is probably not historically accurate. The extant coifs all date from the late 1500s or later, most being from the 1600s with a few from the early 1700s. My personal time period of interest is the early 1500s, specifically 1523. However, there are to my knowledge no coifs existing from that time period. The earliest depiction of a woman's coif (that I am aware of) is in a picture of a woman that is alledgedly Anne Boelyn (but it might be another woman - more on that another day).

This was analyized as a coif with a band tied around the head. The clips on the ear flaps are suspected to be metal, possibly used to hold on a gable hood. But I digress.
I found several coif patterns online:
1) both a one and 3 piece pattern with chin strap:
2) a one piece pattern without chin strap:
3) another three piece pattern:

Trying to be historically accurate, I opted for pattern #2, the one piece coif with no chin strap. I made it out of a mystery remnant. My best guess is that it is all or mostly cotton. I had to adjust the size of this pattern greatly, adding two inches to the folded edge and an inch and a half to the top, but I'm not totally sure my printer didn't resize the pattern. I will post my pattern as a pdf so others can use it in the next couple days.

Once the pattern was appropriately resized, this was a fairly easy project. The directions on were a bit confusing and hard to follow in places, but I came out with a very nice coif that fits my head quite well. It has no chin strap, but the gather at the back of the neck pulls the coif tightly over my ears, fitting it closely to my head and keeping it on well. This was a pleasant surprise, as one site I'd read (see source 2 below) spoke of how reenactors often have difficulty keeping coifs on without bobbypins or elastic. With the drawstring pulled up, mine fits well enough that I think it would stay on no matter what I was doing. Which makes me happy because I don't have to use a historically inaccurate method.

My notes on this pattern are:
1) check the sizing
2) when I sewed the top together, it came to a sharp point - the curved edges should be flattened a bit at the top to make this more of a smooth curve
3) I used a ribbon for the drawstring. Very period, not all that practical - it must be double-knotted to hold.

other resources:
1) coif embroidery:
2) an amazing article on a reproduction one piece coif (no pattern):
3) wikipedia - the source of all knowledge:
5) Extant 16th and 17th century coifs:
6) Reproduction embroidered coif picture:
7) Talks a bit about a coif under "construction":
There was also a magnificent article on how the hair was worn under the coif that I can no longer find... Will post it if it reappears.
1) astronaut wearing a coif under his spacesuit in 1975:
Pics of my coif and a pattern will be coming soon!

No comments: