According to the tailoring methods of the 17th century, sleeves were cut in two pieces. This panel corresponds to the under sleeve of a woman’s jacket.
It is worked in an embroidery technique called blackwork, with a single colour of silk, usually black, but also sometimes blue, red or, greenn on linen. Blackwork was particularly popular for dress accessories such as handkerchiefs, coifs, caps, shirts and smocks.
This is a very accomplished example of 17th-century blackwork in the speckling style. The arrangement of tiny running stitches in black mimics the subtle shading of woodblock prints, giving a three-dimensional effect to the pattern. The design is also very skilful in its naturalism, particularly the insects depicted. Grasshoppers, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, caterpillars and beetles, along with a single spider’s web enliven the embroidery.
The effect of blackwork is cleverly achieved in this forehead cloth from about 1625-1650. Instead of using a single colour of silk thread on linen, two threads of mixed white linen and black silk thread are used. These are embroidered in satin stitch and give the effect of speckling found in blackwork.
The central motif, the Pelican in her Piety, was a motif taken from emblem books. These were a popular type of literature in the 16th and 17th centuries, which associated pictures and symbols with mottos and moral poems. The Pelican in her Piety relates to a myth about a pelican feeding her young from the blood of her breast when she could find no food for them. This myth and images of it were associated with Christianity from the 2nd century AD and they figure frequently in emblem books.
By the 1620s, the Pelican in her Piety appears in embroidery pattern books along with the other motifs - animals, insects, fish and human figures - seen on this forehead cloth. Given the lively and naive mixture of images in the design, it is hard to tell if the Pelican was chosen for its symbolism.