Unstitched Coif Project

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected as one of 40 core embroiderers for a very special hand embroidery project called The Unstitched Coif.

The project is a collaboration between the V&A and curator Toni Buckby a PhD student. The 40 core embroiderers will have their work taken into the V&A archives in 2024.

The project is based on an original 17th century coif in the V&A archives in London. This coif was partially stitched and then unpicked, but the pattern is still clearly visible consisting of hand drawn flowers and whimsical bugs.

Courtesy V&A: Original 17th century unstitched coif. Victoria & Albert Museum Accession Number T.844-1974
Courtesy V&A: Original 17th century unstitched coif. Victoria & Albert Museum Accession Number T.844-1974

The Breif

In early 2023 the call went out for embroiderers to take part in the project.

“Artist and needleworker @tonibuckby is looking for 40 experienced embroiderers to take part in a co-created art project as part of her PhD on the Blackwork Embroidery collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum…. One of the main goals of the project is to capture a part of your embroidery-making experience, which is entirely missing from the historical Blackwork embroideries I have been working with.” 

Toni Buckby.

Her call out was so popular that it was then expanded to include just over 100 other participants from around the globe.

While researching in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Toni had the opportunity to study the imaginatively named “Panel, unknown” in the V&A collections. The panels were fascinating but each lacked the information on who had originally drafted and stitched the work. This was an area that Toni wanted to include and study as part of her PhD.

You can download the paper pattern here (pattern courtesy of Toni Buckby and the V&A):

My Coif Journey

At my first meeting at the V&A London with Toni in April 2023, I was taken aback by the historical importance of The Unstitched Coif Project.  This was my first sight of the linen coif panel. Initial thoughts were that the printed panel was smaller in scale than I first imagined, and that the 72 thread count linen was very crisp and beautiful to handle.

The coif panel is printed onto crisp linen - panel measures 46 x 26 cm
The coif panel is printed onto crisp linen – panel measures around 46 x 26 cm

My mind went into overdrive with the stitching possibilities, and it took a few months before I took a needle and thread to it. I experimented with ideas and considered whether to recreate the work as it would have been when it was originally designed or to stitch it as a contemporary modern piece. I thought through several design choices and tested threads of varying textures and thickness on a sample of the linen.

I researched the stitches, styles and techniques of traditional Elizabethan black work and my original idea was to complete the entire piece in vintage Sylko Turkey Red cotton thread (a thread I use in my own work) creating my own version of a monochromatic blackwork coif. 

A swatch of Aurifil threads added to the panel
A swatch of Aurifil threads added to the panel

My one concern was the conservation quality of using vintage thread. As an alternative, I found a brand-new modern replacement of similar thickness – Aurifil 12 weight cotton thread. The Aurifil thread was available to purchase in a rainbow of colours which swayed me to rethink the design completely as a multicoloured piece, incorporating tones from light to dark.

I chose to stitch in a way that was very different to traditional black work. To treat the piece as if I’d received it in the 21st century and been asked to complete the piece as a contemporary embroiderer. Embroidering it with stitches I like to use in my own work.

The panel was more daunting to start than I thought it would be and a huge learning curve for me. It felt like a commission piece, and I felt myself doubting and second guessing my design choices, feeling like I had to please the recipient rather than myself – a bit like being faced with a white piece of paper and making your first mark. This dissipated after my first few hours of stitching.

I found it easier to infill the flowers and leaves with colour before I stitched the outer lines and stems.

Some areas needed extra touches of colour – seed stitch or long stitch – to balance the colours across the panel. Some of the stem colours felt too solid and needed softening with whipped running stitch.

Adding a slurry of backstitch and whipped running stitch to coif outline.
Adding a slurry of backstitch and whipped running stitch to coif outline.

As I was stitching the coif I found my mind drifting, thinking about how it would look assembled and worn as a garment and who would be wearing it. I’ve stitched clothing before and there is something special about wearing a hand embroidered piece of cloth.

As a finishing touch I signed with my name and year created
As a finishing touch I signed with my name and year created

To complete the panel I added a machine stitch hem (to enable easy handing without the cloth fraying), my name and year created plus a swatch and sample of the threads used. Finished size 45 x25cm approx.

Handing in day at the V&A, Saturday 4th November 2023

The day had finally arrived for delivery of the coif to the V&A Museum in London.

Hidden behind a mirrored door at the end of the Glass Gallery was a room filled with tables of completed coifs being admired by fellow coif stitchers.

Toni catalogued each coif. The 40 core embroiderers completed official V&A paperwork, before a V&A curator carefully packed them away in acid free tissue paper.

As part of my participation, I completed a narrative on my own life as a textile artist and added images and documentation on my experiences stitching the coif.

The coifs will be studied by Toni as part of her PhD. Then in 2024 they will be photographed, catalogued with a unique number and accepted into the V&A collection.

Each member of the project received the same brief and ran with it in their own way creating such diverse results.

I feel honoured to have been one of the 40 core embroiderers for The Unfinished Coif Project 2023.

Update November 2023:

An exhibition of the full collection of embroidered coifs will take place at Bloc Projects, 71 Eyre Lane, Sheffield, S1 4RB from Tuesday 19th – Saturday 23rd December 2023, 12pm – 6pm.

Re-embroidering Blackwork is the culmination of a 5 year Ph.D research project by artist and embroiderer Toni Buckby. Working with the collection of 16th century blackwork embroideries held at the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), Toni has be exploring questions of decay, loss, fragility, and reconstruction within and beyond the museum archive. Re-embroidering Blackwork will present selected pieces from Toni’s studio research practice alongside several final works, including the first complete presentation of “an unstitched coif…” – a collective embroidery project undertaken by over 130 needleworkers in 2023.

Toni Buckby is a Sheffield-based artist working with fine hand embroidery, weaving, drawing, diy electronics, coding, and acts of collective making. Her work explores ideas of skilled practice, the value of labour, the visibility of authorship, and the creation and accessibility of practical knowledge. “

The Unstitched Coif Project

Update December 2023:

On the 21st December I attended the Meet the Artists evening at the Unstitched Coif exhibition in Sheffield.

Toni Buckby welcomed the coif stitchers and introduced us to the book accompanying the exhibition.

She also shared the latest news that the V&A are interested in taking all of the 130 coifs into the museum’s collection.

How the coif is assembled and worn

To discover more about the work follow this QR code.

It’s been a wonderful journey and I’ve met some new friends along the way. You can see more about my story on the Project website.

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