Research and Theories:
Linen caps and coifs are a well-known part of the Elizabethan wardrobe for women and even men. In their simplest form, plain linen caps were worn at all levels of society, often as a protective layer between the hair and a hat or even as a nightcap.
Many women’s embroidered coifs survive from the late 16th and early 17th century England and can be found in museums around the world. While these coifs vary in exact size and shape, the general appearance, when laid flat and unsewn, is of a rectangle with slight curves on the short sides. These curves create deep or shallow flaps over the ears, and some coifs have no curve at all, indicating minimal covering (when large, these flaps were called “‘cheeks’ and ‘ears'” according to Mary Gostelow’s Blackwork).
All the extant coifs appear to follow similar construction, described in Patterns of Fashion 4 by Janet Arnold, page 12, “The straight top edge was folded in half and seamed together for a third to half its length, leaving a gap at the back of the head. A variety of means was used to close the gap. The fullness created at the back was needed to accommodate the bun of coiled hair that it covered.”
In the 1560s, a new form of coif also becomes fashionable in England and France, as shown in the images of the time. This type of cap may have originated in the Netherlands a few decades earlier, although similarly shaped hoods and caps are seen in France throughout the 16th century where the fashion is sometimes called an “attifet” (see note below). This cap flares out wide from the ears, instead of covering them like previous coifs. The cap could be decorated with lace along the edge, it may be paired with elaborate veils, and sometimes the whole cap is made of delicate, sheer material. This style is often associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, due to this much-copied Hilliard painting.
How Was This Cap Made?
As far as I can tell, no caps in this heart-shaped, face-framing shape survive in museums today. The only evidence is found in period imagery. However, the extant coifs point towards the wider cap’s basic construction.
What might keep this coif standing so wide out from the ears? Partly, it must be the shape of the cap; there would have to be more fabric than in a standard coif, which fits snugly to the side of the head. No patterns exist, but adding higher curves that eliminate the “cheeks” and greatly expand the “ears” so the top edge spreads out on each side can achieve the desired shape. But in fine linen, the cap will flop down on top of the wearer’s head.
Starch was used on linen neckwear in England starting in the 1560s, having come from the Low Countries, according to Patterns of Fashion 4, page 15. But as one increases the size of the coif’s “ears,” starch alone does not keep the front of the cap in a shape to frame the face. A starched ruff is kept aloft through a combination of tight gathers at the neck and evenly spaced “sets” that are starched and heated. A great deal of structure gives the starch places to support. But the cap shape is simpler and very open with few seams and a quarter to a third of the fabric hanging off the head — the starch can only do so much.
However, starched linen can be combined with wire to create the desired shape. This is a conjecture, but it’s based in materials used in headgear and similar accessories of the time.
Wire was used in hats of the late 15th through 16th century. Notes accompanying a gable-shaped wire headdress frame at the Museum of London explain: “Excavations in London have produced a number of brass wire headdress frames, of the kind concealed under fabric and worn by all but the poorest. Those with a diamond or angular profile were especially fashionable in the late 1400s and early 1500s. The curved frame or ‘French hood’ seems to have been worn concurrently with the gable types throughout the 1520s and 30s, but features more prominently in portraits from the fourth decade, gradually superseding the angular form and remaining popular until well into the 1560s.”
Towards the end of the 16th century, wire was also used in grand veils that stood out behind a woman’s head. In Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Janet Arnold notes that some veils are “held out over wire frames standing above the shoulders, and appear in several portraits” of the English queen (page 156). She continues to describe these elaborate structures: “These wired veils were oblong in shape, wide enough to reach across the shoulders with allowance for pleating or gathering as required and falling to the ground at the back. A narrow casing was made on the upper edge and a wire threaded through it. The ends of the wire were pinned down at the back of the neck or to the head-dress so that the veil stood in two big hoops behind the head. The veil could be caught in across the shoulders or left to float free from the wired edge.”
Lastly, wire was used in rebatos, the elaborate supporters for large ruffs and collars at the very start of the 17th century. Patterns of Fashion 4 describes several rebatos made of iron and brass wire, often wrapped in silk and silver or brass gilt wire, dating from 1610-40. Interestingly, wire wrapped in silk is not too dissimilar from modern millinery wire, which is wire wrapped in thread.
It’s reasonable to assume a combination of starch and wire would create the face-framing heart shape of this cap, as both materials were commonly used in headgear and neckwear of this period. While wire is not noticeable in the images of this cap, neither is wire apparent in images of wired veils or wired rebatos.
Painters and engravers seem to reproduce fashions in great detail, but they don’t always show evidence of the structure of garments. Just as we can’t necessarily see stitches or fabric weaves in all paintings and engravings, we can’t see the bump of a wire showing through (though I will note that in photos of my reproduction wired caps, it’s not easy to see a wire bump showing through either!).
About the Word “Attifet”:
Modern costumers sometimes call this cap an “attifet,” and there is some controversy over this term in reenactor circles. I could not find any English references for the term “attifet” dating to the 16th century, so I feel that, in the period, the English would have called this headgear a cap, coif, wired cap, or wired coif.
However, the word “attifet” does date to at least 1480 in French with the meaning of a woman’s cap “advancing to a point on the forehead” . There are numerous casual references to women and “attifets” in French books from the 16th century, but my translation skills are not strong enough to understand beyond these mentions.
How to Make a Plausibly-Period Wired Cap
- 1/3 yard of lightweight white linen (I like the 3.5-oz linen from Fabric-Store.com & the 3.8-oz linen from DharmaTrading.com.),
- 1 yard of white cotton cord or plain white ribbon, no wider than 1/8″ or 4mm
- 1/3 yard of white millinery wire or other #18 to #20 gauge craft wire
- Optional: 1 yard of white lace trim
- Cap pattern (download PDF page 1 and page 2 here)
- Scissors for cutting fabric
- Hand-sewing needle
- White thread
- Straight pins
- Starch (modern spray starch is sufficient)
- Wire cutters
- Needle-nose pliers (optional, but helpful)
1. Print the two pages of the cap pattern, and tape together. The cap is one-size fits most (if you usually wear a large hat size or have very thick, curly hair, you may need to enlarge the pattern). Also, you can alter the shape of the “ears” to be larger or smaller to suit your taste.
2. Pre-wash and dry your fabric, cord, and lace. While you should not need to wash the finished cap very often (it’s more decorative than a standard coif), pre-washing removes any sizing in the materials and ensures that the materials have shrunk as much as possible before sewing.
3. Iron the fabric and, if necessary, the cord and lace. Starch the fabric. If the lace is wider than 1/4″, starch the lace also.
4. Place the pattern on the fabric with the side marked “fold” on a fold in the fabric, and then cut out the cap pattern from the fabric. Note that the pattern includes a 1/2″ seam allowance on all sides.
5. Take the cord/ribbon and lay it over the bottom edge. Fold the fabric edge over the cord/ribbon, turning the raw fabric edge in to enclose it, and create a casing. Stitch the casing closed, being careful not to sew though the cord/ribbon. Note: You can do this step after step 11, if desired.
6. Fold the fabric in half (where the pattern was marked “fold”). Use a straight pin to mark the “Gather to Here” mark (do not use pencils of any kind because you will not want to wash the starch out of the cap). Run a gathering stitch at the top edge of the fabric from the fold to the mark. Remove pin. Pull gathers taut.
7. Place a straight pin at the “Sew to Here” mark. Sew from the end of the gathers to the mark. Remove pin. Press straight part of the seam open (not the gathered part).
8. Take the wire and curl one cut end in upon itself to form a tiny ball (needle-nose pliers are useful for this task, but you can do it with your fingers). You want to keep the cut end from poking out.
9. Starting at one bottom end of the cap next to the casing, whip-stitch the wire to the open edge of the cap, folding the fabric around the wire as you go. At the very start, fold a tiny extra edge of fabric around the wire and tack this down with extra stitches to enclose the end of the wire.
10. When you reach the center point, you may want to bend the wire, then keep whipping and folding the wire. This is a personal preference as some images of the period show a sharp center point and some don’t.
11. When you get within an inch of the opposite bottom end of the cap, pause sewing. Snip off all but a bare 1/8″ of wire overhanging the end of the cap. Curl this cut end of the wire in upon itself to form a tiny ball, just like you did at the start of the wire in step 8. Then continue whip-stitching the rest of the wire down and fold the fabric around the wire to the end of the wire. You may want to fold over a tiny bit of fabric at the end and tack with extra stitches, as at the start.
12. If desired, whip-stitch lace along the wired front edge of the cap.
How to Wear the Cap:
This cap works particularly well if you have shoulder-length or longer hair. If you have shorter hair, you may need to wear a hairpiece to keep the coif on the back of your head.
1. Part your hair in the center. You can brush your hair straight back or curl your hair first or dress your hair over rats to achieve the popular style of the era. For instructions on styling the front of your hair, see my article on late Elizabethan hairstyles.
2. Coil the back of your hair into a bun or braid it and coil the braid into a bun. If you have short hair, coil a braid of fake hair and pin it to the back of your hair. In a pinch, you can even use a modern fabric scrunchie (really! it works and is lightweight enough to only need a few bobby pins to stay in short hair). If desired, you can braid and tape your hair. Whatever you do will be entirely covered by the cap, but it’s necessary to fill out the back to secure the cap.
3. Place the cap on your head. Cross the strings behind your head and bring them up over your head and around the hair bun. Tie them at the top of your head, right in front of your bun or braids. Tie securely, but not overly tight. If the strings are short, tie them off there with a bow. If the strings are long enough, bring them back down, and tie off in a small bow at the back of your neck.
4. Make sure the cap is centered and is as far forward or back on your head as looks good. You may want to bend the wire near your ears for a close fit and attractive shape. No pins should be needed to keep the coif on; the ties should be sufficient.
For more on tips on properly putting on coifs, see also Laura Mellin’s How to Wear an Elizabethan Coif article.
 Gostelow, Mary. Blackwork. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.
 Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear, and Accessories for Men and Women, c. 1540-1660. With Jenny Tiramani & Santina M. Levey. London: Macmillan/Quite Specific Media Group Ltd., 2008.
 Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: Maney, 1988.
 Attifet Definition: Centre National de Ressources Textuelle et Lexicale. Accessed on 17 May 2012. http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/attifet
 Attifet Translation: Ornament, ornament of woman. 1480. “Little woman’s cap, advancing to a point on the forehead.” Google Translate. Accessed on 17 May 2012. http://translate.google.com/