the Gilded Pearl

full view of cap

Embroidering a Blackwork Coif

Baroness Mistress Dorren of Ashwell
[Barbara L. Ding]

  1. "craft" linen from Herrschners’ catalogue - this linen is not quite even weave, as can be seen by the distortions in the embroidery; however, it is inexpensive and nice to work with!
  2. #26 and 28 tapestry (blunt) needles
  3. Black DMC floss - substituted cotton floss for silk for washability and because my only source of linen thread at the beginning of the project was prohibitively expensive and not colorfast.
  4. Graph paper & colored markers
  5. 10 Count Aida to help figure out the most complex patterns




  • A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen. New York: Frederick A. Prager, 1964
    Coifs, plates 389, 391, 392
    Vinework, plates 383, 390
    Blackwork-filled leaves, plate 395
  • Counted Thread Embroidery Patterns from before 1650 by Mistress Andreanna Innes [Kim Ann Innes], self-published [early 90s?].
  • Some Blackwork Filling Patterns by Mistress Alys Gardener [as Mistress Airmid Godwin] - self published, from a class [mid to late 80s?].


    • At the top edge, from acorn to acorn at the widest part: 36.5 cm.
    • At the bottom edge, from tip of maple to tip of maple at the widest part: 24 cm.
    • From the vine base (back of neck) to tip of maple on top edge (measured straight, not on the diagonal): 25.8 cm.
    Seam lines shown on web site are approximate; I have them basted onto the actual cap, but the basting did not show up well for the reproduction, and was redrawn by hand.

    Design Process and Execution:
    This coif started out as my solution to making a sampler that would be practical and usable once completed. I settled on making a cap covered in leaves after seeing multiple examples of this in A Pictorial History of Embroidery; the leaves were a common design element of Tudor and Elizabethan embroidery, and there were several clear photographs of caps [not made up] that allowed me to figure out how to make a pattern comparable to those from the book.

    To make the fabric cap, I compared the flat illustrations in Pictorial with my own head measurements, and guessed. My prototype cap was made from scrap muslin, and originally, did not include the triangular area at the center of the cap; from my own experiments, the cap fitted best if this area was left plain and the cap seamed along the top of the head, then the plain triangle cut off. I decided to use this construction method despite the knowledge that the flat coifs illustrated in Pictorial were full embroidered. [About ¼ way through the embroidery, I was told that this was not an authentic method of coif construction, so I added leaves to the triangular area, unwilling to scrap so many hours of work. I am still waiting to find out the period construction method from someone who has actually examined historic pieces - if anyone can help with this, please contact me!] Making the cap pattern was mostly trial and error with the muslin; the measurements I used to help design the cap were:

    1. Base of neck to forehead [especially easy to do if you have a ship’s bow curve, which also gives you the curve shape]
    2. Top of cheekbone to top of cheekbone around the back of the head neck
    3. Shoulder to shoulder over the top of the head.
    4. After finding a fit I was happy with, I added about ¾" all around for the seam, traced the pattern onto paper, and started to draw in leaves and stems. I used charcoal to do the drawing, then basted the stem lines and cap outline to mark them. The leaves were traced from actual leaves that I gathered for the purpose; unfortunately many of the ones I’d planned to use were significantly larger that would fit nicely onto the space available. I backstitched around the leaf outlines next, then washed the whole piece to remove the charcoal.

    There wasn’t actually a plan for the blackwork patterns. I used the resources listed above, and just put things into leave wherever I felt they would look good. This led to a few problems - in one case, I did identical patterns in two adjacent leaves - and some areas of the cap are considerably denser with embroidery than other areas. The leaves themselves posed more of a challenge than I had anticipated; particularly in the very irregular areas of the maples, where counting became a real nightmare at times! I would suggest sticking to more regular forms when using leaves, or using the simpler patterns to fill the more complex leaf patterns. Some of the patterns were simple to figure out; others required careful diagramming on graph paper with colored markers, and a few designs were executed on scrap fabric to find the best path for embroidery.

    My goal was not necessarily to do the fillings entirely in double-running stitch; some of the patterns I used are not reversible, and I opted for monochrome speckling for the acorns - which are a bit small to show more then the simplest patterns - since this is considered [at least in the SCA] a variant of blackwork. As the original concept of the cap was to present a usable sampler, I feel justified in including multiple techniques, even if mixing them is not specifically documentable.

    Looking Back:
    If I could start over again on this particular project, I would avoid the mirror symmetry of the sides in favor of a more varied pattern. The time it would have taken to draw asymmetric sides is insignificant in light of the scope of the whole project; another hour of drawing, maybe.

    I would also add some floral or animal motifs; I think this would help with the visual complexity and add a more authentic touch to the cap. I am still debating about adding spangles; I welcome comments and suggestions regarding them.

    The design and prototyping time took the least amount of time, at several hours. The research likewise was very brief, since I already owned my sources, and had only to locate the appropriate plates and illustrations. The charcoal drawings onto the fabric took an afternoon; this might have gone quicker had I pressed the leaves into ground charcoal and transferred then in that fashion, but I was unwilling to spread charcoal all over the house, and would have gotten it everywhere as I backstitched the leaf outlines! In all, the cap required several hundred hours of embroidery time; I stopped counting somewhere after 100 hours, and I wasn’t anywhere near finished.

    I look forward to finding out the method of construction so I can finish making the cap, and will, at that time, try to share a picture of the finished product on this page!

    I can be reached with comments/suggestions/advice at

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