The St. Birgitta’s Cap: How to Make a Medieval Coif

One of the most important items in the reenactor’s arsenal is headwear. The proper headwear helps the reenactor to polish and complete their look, and adds an unmistakable air of authenticity. For women a good coif is worth its weight in gold. Here in the Southern United States, events tend to be hot and muggy, making it next to impossible to manage a decent looking hair style. A good coif or cap not only takes care of that problem, it also provides a fabulous base to which we can pin our veils and wimples.

The medieval coif commonly known as the St. Birgitta’s Cap dates to the 14th century, and still survives today in the collection of Sweden’s Riksantikbarieambete (National Heritage Board). It consists of two (2) halves, which are joined with a form of the herringbone stitch. Images of caps similar to this one can be found in numerous 13th and 14th century manuscripts. Below is an example of the coif taken from the Maciejowski Bible, a/k/a the Crusader Bible, in the collection of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. These illuminations date to 1240s France. The figure on the right is wearing the traditional coif, with the long straps looped over the head then tied in back.

Samuel, MS M.638, fol. 19v, from the Maciejowski Bible, a/k/a the Crusader Bible, in the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Circa 1240, Paris, France.

Finally, The cap we are going to be patterning today will join the two halves via a one-half (1/2) inch seam, rather than embroidery. Obviously, for those comfortable with embroidery, once patterned you may certainly join your two halves via a similar herringbone embroidery as used in the original, or another period appropriate stitch. This pattern is suitable for both machine and hand sewing. If you use a machine, it is still preferable to fell your seams via hand so that stitches do not show on the outside of the coif.

Choosing Your Fabric

The first and most important step is choosing the type and weight of the fabric you want to use. The fabric used in the original was linen. The choice of weight is up to you and your personal preferences. A finer woven, handkerchief weight linen makes a lovely cap. The finer weight linen has a more delicate appearance, and is quite suitable for use as the base for pinning a veil and wimple. A medium weight linen has a sturdier appearance, and in my opinion makes a good “working around the home” type of cap to hold one’s hair off one’s face and shoulders. Silk is also suitable, but keep in mind it tends to slip and slide, both when sewing and when worn. Keep in mind that silk would have been used only by the wealthy. You may also use a fine woven cotton, as cotton was indeed found in period in Southern Europe.

A note regarding the color of fabric to use:  I have had several people ask me if it is “okay” to use colors other than white. The short answer is:  Do whatever you feel like. The long answer is: The only examples I have found (thus far) in medieval artwork show the coifs being made in white. However, because fabric was so expensive, I am of the opinion that scraps of fabric from other projects would have been used so that no fabric went to waste. As we know with linen, first the flax had to be grown, harvested, fibers separated from the woody stock (a very laborious and labor intensive job), combed and straightened to prepare for spinning, spun into thread, and woven. And that’s the short version. Personally, if I have some fabric left over from making another linen garment, I see no problem using it to make a coif. I might, however, limit formal attire to a white coif.

Preparing Your Fabric

If you choose to use linen or cotton, make sure to pre-wash and dry your fabric. It is important that the fabric shrinks before your make your coif, otherwise you’ll be disappointed in the fit after you wash it for the first time.

After the fabric has been washed and dried, make sure to iron it smooth so as to remove any wrinkles. It is impossible to get accurate measurements on wrinkled cloth.

Creating The Pattern

For this section please refer to the graphed drawing shown below. A printable PDF version is also attached below the image:

On a large piece of paper, such as a sketch pad or roll of paper, draw a square that is 9.5 inches wide, and 12 inches long.

The body of the coif:

  • Mark points A, B, and C as noted on the graph.
  • A – Marks the front center seam of the coif.
  • B – Marks the end of the stitching line for the seam that joins the two halves.
  • C – Marks the beginning of the gather line on the bottom edge of the coif halves.
  • Using the graph as a guide, draw a curved line from point A to point B. If you are not comfortable free-handing this, you may do like I did and use the edge of a plate to achieve the curve.
  • Similarly, at the bottom of the cap curve your line inwards beginning at point C. The curve starts  at bout the 8 inch mark, curves to about 10 inches, then proceeds at an angle the rest of the way to the bottom left at the corner.

NOTE:  Some patterns leave this bottom corner squared off. The problem with that is when you go to make your gathers there will be too much extra material, and it will be more difficult to achieve nice even gathers. I found it easier to go ahead and trim the bottom of the cap so that the excess fabric was trimmed off before creating my gathers.

The Edging and Straps

  • If you have a sufficient amount of fabric, cut 1 strip, 78 inches long and 2 inches wide.
  • If you do not have a sufficient amount of fabric, cut the following instead:
    • For the edging, cut 1 strip, 28 inches long and 2 inches wide; and
    •  For the straps, cut 2 strips, 25 inches long and 2 inches wide.

Pattern Assembly & Construction

Once the pattern is created, follow these steps for assembly and construction:

Step 1: 

  • Using the linen weight of your choice, cut two (2) pattern pieces of the cap.
  • Cut one (1) strip 28 in. x 2 in.
  • Cut two (2) strips 25 in. x 2 in.
  • Alternatively, if you have the fabric and you prefer one continuous strip, cut one (1) strip 78 in. x 2 in.

Step 2:

  • Mark Points A, B, and C on your fabric, using tailor’s chalk or similar.

Step 3

  • Sew from Point A to Point B using a one-half (1/2) inch seam.
  • Fold under each side of the seam one-quarter (1/4) inch, and sew flat (fell), all the way down to the bottom edge where it meets the gathers.
A neat felled seam, pinned and ready to stitch.

Step 4

  • Gather fabric from Point C to end of each side. Do not gather in the felled seam. Stop your gathers at the edge of the felled seam.
  • Baste gathers in place.

Step 5

  • Mark the center of your 28 in. x 2 in. strip.
  • Turn under one-quarter (1/4) inch on both sides and press.
  • Center strip on center seam of cap.
  • Pin strip in place to front brim of cap and stitch, using a one-quarter (1/4) inch seam. This will enclose the gathers.
  • Leave edges of strips open.

Step 6

  • Turn under one-quarter (1/4) inch on both sides of remaining two straps and press.
  • Attach one (1) of remaining strips to each side of cap, and attach to the cap edging using a one-quarter (1/4) inch seam.
  • Sew down long edges of both straps. If using a machine, stitch very close to the open edges. If sewing by hand, you may use a whip stitch or similar. You can be creative if you like!

And there you have it, your very own medieval coif in the style of the St. Birgitta cap. Feel free to embroider the cap, either along the main seam or the front and side edges, to give it your own special touch.

The finished coif

Categories: Stitches In TimeTags: , ,
%d bloggers like this: