I love the idea of practicing an art form steeped in history, and so earlier this year I started making chainmaille. Chainmaille was invented by the Etruscans 3,000 years ago, the Celts came up with their own version, and in the Middle Ages, European metalworkers produced the type of mesh armour we think of today. They made maille by interweaving mild steel rings one by one in a particular pattern and then riveting each ring closed. Because it was so labour-intensive, usually only wealthy warriors could afford it. They would wear a thickly padded gambeson jacket topped by a mesh shirt called a hauberk as well as a maille hood (coif), socks (chausses) and gloves (mitons). Chainmaille wasn’t able to protect against blunt blows from heavy axes or swords, but it could stop weapons from piercing the skin.
Method: Nowadays, decorative maille isn’t usually riveted or soldered. Rings are woven through each other in a repeated pattern, then closed by hand (called butting) with a set of pliers. Saw-cut rings are the best to use rather than machine-cut, as the openings are flat and flush, and therefore can be closed tightly and neatly. Even so, for almost all of the chainmaille I make, I still file each and every closure until it is smooth and comfortable to wear, and virtually invisible. (You can’t do this with anodized aluminum, as filing would ruin the coloured coating.)
Materials: Regular jewellery jump rings are never used to make maille, as they are weak, distort easily and don’t close tightly. Special chainmailling rings come in many types of metal: anodized and bright aluminum, copper, brass, bronze, galvanized, carbon and stainless steel, niobium, titanium, nickel silver, enameled copper, plastic and rubber, even gold and sterling silver. You can learn how to make your own rings rather than buy them ready-made, although that, too, is a time-consuming process. I find it’s more economical for me to purchase them ready to go. When I was searching for sources, I was delighted to find that there’s an online chainmaille supplier in Toronto! (I mean, really, what are the chances? A company dedicated to selling all manner of chainmaille supplies, right here in my own city? Happy dance!!) The Ring Lord offers the best quality rings around, in all the materials mentioned above, as well as tools, beads and many other accessories, plus instructions, kits and some pieces of finished maille.
Weaves: By far the most common pattern, or weave, used to make medieval chainmaille was the European 4 in 1, in which 4 rings are attached to a single ring. The pattern is repeated to make a flexible mesh which can be narrowed or expanded to make sleeves, etc., and this is the pattern you see on armour-clad actors in any TV show or movie with a medieval setting. (Except for the ’80s series Robin of Sherwood, in which the “chainmaille” sported by Sir Guy et al. was knitted wool, spray-painted silver!) Currently I don’t have anything done in the 4 in 1 weave because it’s used mostly to make larger pieces of “fabric”. At some point, however, I would like to take a stab (see what I did there?) at making a small mesh drawstring pouch using this pattern.
Ring Sizes and Aspect Ratio: Each weave pattern requires rings of a certain size to work properly. Chainmaille jump rings are sold based on the thickness of the wire used, the rings’ inside diameter (ID), outside diameter (OD) and their aspect ratio (AR), all of which determine how tight or loose the weave will be. (Too tight, and you won’t be able to interweave the rings; too loose, and the pattern won’t hold its shape.) Of these, aspect ratio is the most critical for the success of the weave. The AR is the ratio of the inside diameter divided by the wire diameter. It sounds complicated, but basically it means that not all rings work with all patterns. Most pattern instructions will include a range of ring sizes that will work, and there are also online AR calculators and apps available.
Basic Patterns: There’s a dizzying variety of chainmaille weaves out there, and more being invented every day. As I began my self-taught mailling journey, I started with the simplest ones and progressed to the more complex. 1 in 1 is the most basic, in which one ring is attached to another, and then a third is attached to the second, etc., as in a necklace chain. This is the weakest type of construction. Finished pieces will have more strength and visual appeal when rings are doubled, tripled, folded back, turned sideways, etc. In this post, I’m showing some of the basic ones: 2 in 2, 3 in 3, 4 in 4, the Mobius knot, and a funky weave called Shaggy Loops. In my next post, I’ll cover a few more advanced patterns.
For More Information: If you’re interested in trying chainmaille for yourself, I suggest checking out M.A.I.L. (Maille Artisans International League), an online resource and forum for everything chainmaille.
Shameless Plug: Most of the pieces shown here, and more, are available in my Etsy shop.