by Lady Isolda de Leycestre
All throughout the Middle Ages, men wore coifs to keep their hair clean and out of their face. In many illuminations, coifs are depicted in white or a natural color. Depending on one’s status during the Middle Ages would determine on how fine the cloth was for the coif. Finer white linens for the wealthy and peasants had rougher linens in natural colors.
I have been learning how to hand sew medieval clothing items using period-correct sewing tools lately. I recently got inspired by these images from the Rutland Psalter of 1260, men’s coifs with the stitches depicted.
The coifs appear to be a two-piece construction with a band across the back of the coif to cover the raw edges and a longer band across the front of the coif to cover the raw edges and act as the ties for under the chin.
I used The Medieval Tailors Assistant book for reference on cutting out the coif pattern and for stitches to use for construction of the coif. I used reproduction sewing needles and pins that were based off archeological digs in London. (I purchased them from The Fairytale Chest shop in Etsy.)
I chose a fine white linen and used white linen thread for sewing. Construction of the coif for me was pretty straightforward: sew the two pieces together down the center of the coif, finish the seams to hide the raw edges, and sew on the bands.
I found the linen easy to work with; it was easy for me to crease the seams and it held the creasing very well for me to sew. I used a backstitch to sew down the center of the coif seam. Next, using my fingers and natural body heat, I pressed open the seam, folded over the raw edges and used a simple whip stitch to tact them down.
Next was creating the bands for the back and front of the coif. I measured both front and back for the length needed, adding 12 inches on each side of the front band for the ties. I cut my bands a little over an inch wide. Again, using my fingers, I folded the bands in half, making a good crease in the linen as I went along the length of the band. Next, I opened the band and carefully pressed in the outer edges of the band to the center, making a good crease in the linen. Then I folded the band in half again, making it in the fashion of modern-day double-folded bias tape. I did not cut the bands on the bias as I felt this would make them too stretchy and the coif would not fit right. For the front band, I double folded in very small edges to hide the raw edges.
Opening the bands, I put them on the raw edges of the coif and sewed then on using a whip stitch that is shown in The Medieval Tailors Assistant book. For the front band, I closed the tie ends using the same whip stitch.
I found sewing with the reproduction needle mostly easy; however, as my body heat warmed up the brass, it bent the needle. I had to stop quite a lot to straighten out my needle. I also found that the needle and pins left bigger holes in the fabric compared to their modern counterparts. But I felt in the end of it all, the holes went away as I continued to work with the linen and felt that it didn’t change the outcome of the coif.
I still need to work on making my stitch work much better, but that will come with practice, practice and more practice! Hope you enjoyed reading about this project, I really did enjoy making the coif.