8 March, 2015
This is a forehead cloth of linen, embroidered with flat silk, in the style of English floral freehand blackwork from the late 16th century and early 17th century. I have used period materials and techniques wherever possible, including plain weave linen, flat silk embroidery floss, and a medieval reproduction thimble. I do not yet own a period needle appropriate to this type of embroidery, and I own a modern scrolling frame, though I did lash it into place on all sides to keep the fabric completely taught while working.
English women wore forehead cloths in conjunction with coifs as a hair covering from the late 16th century through the mid 17th century, as illustrated by portraits and extant pieces. After a woman put her hair up, the forehead cloth would be tied such that it covered the brow and front of the hair, while the coif covered the rest of the head.
Very often coifs and forehead cloths would be embroidered in matching designs or patterns. They were blackwork, blackwork with metal thread (gold or silver) and spangles, or polychrome embroidered. The embroidery floss was silk, and the ground plain white linen in all of the extant museum pieces I viewed from the decades to either side of 1600 c.e. Designs were varied, but most often were floral in a loose spiral pattern, interspersed floral designs, or bands of geometric counted work.
I chose to design my own motif for blackwork embroidery, which I worked with flat silk. I was advised towards flat silk by other embroiderers interested in blackwork of this period, and closely examined photos of extant pieces in relation to my own work to confirm that my flat silk presented the same appearance as the extant pieces. In the extant pieces there is sometimes what appears to be a very slight twist in the silk, especially in places that are stem stitched.
As I embroidered my piece, I found that the flat silk had a tendency to twist slightly as I worked, especially where I was using a stem stitch, requiring me to untwist it periodically and creating a slightly twisted appearance in the finished stitches.
I wanted to create an embroidery design of my own, reminiscent of actual Renaissance Elizabethan blackwork. I was inspired by several paintings to use strawberries for my subject, which I found particularly enticing because they naturally flower and fruit at the same time. I did not intend to use metal floss or spangles, so I wanted to stick to a relatively delicate flow defined predominantly by lines of stem stitch in loose roundels, which I laid out such that the embroidery could be worked in a band, or in a continual field with extra spirals joining the sections. By creating the design in that way I can not only use it for this forehead cloth, but also a fully embroidered coif, and a matching partlet or shirt with the embroidery laid out in bands around the collar, neck opening, sleeve cuffs, and down the sleeves. Since none of the examples of strawberries that I found fit that aesthetic, I went to photos of strawberries for inspiration on the shapes of the flowers and leaves.
Extant freehand embroidered blackwork museum pieces I examined were worked with a variety of stitches. The ones with delicate designs of a similar aesthetic to my design predominantly used stem stitch for the outlines and lines, and back stitch or double-running stitch for the filling patterns. Following those examples, I used stem stitch for all the outlines and lines of my design. The individual elements of my design were too small for intricate filling stitches, so I decided to use stab stitches to illustrate the seeds on the strawberries and shading on the flowers, and double-running stitch for the veins of the leaves.
Since only one side was going to be visible on the finished item when it was worn, I was not concerned about keeping the backside clean like I might for an embroidery like counted blackwork on the collar of a shirt. This left me free to focus the way I worked the pattern for speed of embroidery, and efficiency of floss use. The back of my piece reflects this. Efficient use of thread was the primary motivation for choosing double-running stitch over backstitch for the veins of the leaves, and was also the primary reason in most places there is far less floss on the underside than the visible side. This made it inconvenient to tuck the tail ends of the floss under the stitches, so I left them dangling. I also ran the thread from place to place as I finished each branch of the motif and needed to move on to the next. These things were also done on every freehand embroidered extant piece where I was able to find photos of the underside.
I started the piece using Soi Ovale flat silk. When I had finished that skein I switched to flat silk from the Japanese Embroidery Center. I was interested in trying both brands and comparing the difference. I found that the Soi Ovale was slightly more robust, and the Japanese Embroidery Center silk was a bit more delicate. As a result, the JEC silk is about 2/3 the apparent thickness of the Soi Ovale. This can be seen on the front row of embroidery, half of which is a bit thicker than the other half. On hindsight I should have started the embroidery at the back corner, so the transition area would have been hidden under the coif when worn.
To finish the forehead cloth I removed it from the frame. Using linen thread I hand stitched a small rolled hem around the outside of the triangle, and attached hand-stitched tubes of linen to the corners of the long side, which are used to tie the forehead cloth in place when it is worn. I was only able to find one photo of the underside of a forehead cloth. It was unlined, so I left mine unlined as well.
Coif; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collections Online, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228945
Blackwork at Fashion Museum, Bath; Blogger Chikanstitch, http://chikanstitch.blogspot.com/2012/07/blackwork-at-fashion-museum-bath.html
Blackwork Coif and Forehead Cloth; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collections Online, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228946
Geddes, Elisabeth, and Moyra McNeill. Blackwork Embroidery. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. Print.
Hogg, Becky, and England London. Blackwork. Tunbridge Wells: Search, 2010. Print.
Forehead Cloth; Manchester Galleries (currently offline due to site redesign)
Portrait of an Unknown Lady, (once called ‘Catherine Parr’, and then ‘Catherine Vaux, Lady Throckmorton’); by British (English) School; National Trust, Coughton Court, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/portrait-of-an-unknown-lady-130331
Portrait of Eizabeth I; Artist unknown; Jesus College, Oxford, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_I_Jesus_College_Oxford_1590.jpg
Smock; V&A Collections, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78732/smock-unknown/
For Work In Progress images and musings, visit
Project: Blackwork Forehead Cloth