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Blackwork Embroidered Forehead Cloth(detail)
Blackwork Embroidered Forehead Cloth

English, ca. 1600

This forehead cloth of delicate blackwork embroidery would have been worn by a woman as part of her at-home attire, with a matching coif of the same intricate floral pattern. By the 1580s, these cloths are known to have been worn around the brow and draped over the coif. They continued as accessories of female dress until the mid-seventeenth century.

Flowers encircled by scrolling vines appear frequently on English embroideries of the period and were used to decorate many types of garments both in monochrome and polychrome embroidery. Worked in fine black silk threads on a linen ground, the complex pattern posits individual flowers and leaves within irregularly placed curling tendrils entwined in a meandering arrangement. A rolled hem along the sides of the forehead cloth is decorated with parallel lines and voided circles. Running stitches worked inside the petals and leaves create a hatched effect—a technique in blackwork often linked to mimicking the printed engravings from which numerous needlework patterns derived. The more delicate scrolls found on blackwork of the sixteenth century are somewhat enlarged in scale on this example, prefiguring the transition to bold, curvilinear floral work which develops in the seventeenth century.

Blackwork embroidery is associated historically in England with Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who came to England and married Henry VIII in 1509. This association accounts for the handwritten note passed down with this forehead cloth: “Work supposed to have been introduced by Catherine of Aragon.” While blackwork was often referred to as Spanish work, English examples appear in inventories earlier than Catherine’s arrival in the country. But the pared-down style of monochromatic embroidery favored by Catherine of Aragon had its influence on English women’s taste as can be seen in contemporary portraits, particularly those by Hans Holbein (1497–1543), as well as on domestic textiles such as cushions and coverlets.

Provenance: Braddyll Family Collection, Conishead Priory, Cumbria

8” H x 16.5” W
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