Chainmaille Mania (Part 1)

chainmaille-suppliesI 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.)

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Basic weaves (clockwise from top left): 2 in 2 Blue Ombré anodized aluminum necklace; 3 in 3 Ginger copper earrings with glass beads; 2 in 2 & 3 in 3 Ocean Waves anodized aluminum bracelet; 4 in 4 Forest Walk anodized aluminum keychain

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.

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Mobius, a.k.a. love knot, bird’s nest or rosette, is formed by connecting each ring to the others through a central hole. The Rose Garden necklace (top L) is anodized aluminum; all others, including the Double Mobius (bottom L) are stainless steel.

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.

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The Shaggy Loops weave is featured in these Cascade earrings of copper, bronze and anodized aluminum on handmade sterling silver earwires.

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.

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The Charm of Making

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Handmade pendants of reclaimed Muskoka wood. L to R: red oak, hand-tinted & pyrographed pine, juniper, pyrographed pine, birch, pyrographed pine with faux bark edging

Even though it’s a bit overblown in parts, the 1981 film Excalibur ranks as one of my favourite movies, one that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in my ’teens. In fact, it appears on a long scroll of Dark Age/medieval works that I’ve savoured over the years: Tolkien and Chaucer and Le Morte d’Arthur, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, TV’s Robin of Sherwood (1984-86), Jack Whyte, Rutherford and Zimmer Bradley. They, and a host of others, have moulded my tastes for the historical and fanciful – and made me a lifelong card-carrying Anglophile-medievalist.

My imagination long since whetted like flint, I dream of living in the past, not as a highborn noble, but lowly, as a roundhouse-dwelling peasant. (I’ve never been one to take the Road of Least Resistance.) I want to pad barefoot across beaten dirt floors, smell the tang of woodsmoke from a crackling cookfire, eat coarse-milled bread and quaff dark ale by the hearth after a hard day’s work foraging for firewood and tending my meagre plot of leeks and cabbages. My garb would be a rough linen tunic, gathered around the hips with a braided belt. When the winter began to bite, I’d draw my woolen cloak closely ’round my shoulders, fixing it with a penannular brooch made of bronze. And, should the wolves draw too close, my bone-handled dagger would be ready in its sheath at my side.

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Leather-working supplies featuring Canadian moose hide

Romantic drivel, yes, as my head knows perfectly well that the hard, short life of a medieval peasant was not in the least bit pretty. (The elite didn’t have it so good, either.) But my Celtic heart is drawn to the mysteries of flagstones and candles, thatched huts, horseflesh, leather and mead. And that is why, when I craft – for myself, as gifts for family and friends, or items for my shop – the things I make are primitive, homespun and rustic. I love the idea and look of burnished copper, hammered bronze, tooled leather and warm, glowing wood. If I can make an item – a rune-engraved talisman, for example – look as if an archaeologist just dug it up from its 1,500-year resting place, I will. Linseed oil and beeswax and aged patinas. Unbleached linen, dried lavender and jute. Spidery, sepia script from a beloved dip pen, scrawled across a sheaf of yellowed vellum. Natural materials and motifs plucked from the shadows of history; it’s my way of acknowledging the longed-for, mist-shrouded past.

Back to Excalibur. Have you seen it? Do you, like me, love the scene when Igrayne dances for the men to the wild beat of drums? Guenevere stitching up young Arthur’s wound, and severing the thread with her teeth? Or the wedding, set in a lush forest, and the moss-covered pagan statue that Morgana reverently caresses as she and Merlin converse? And how about that Morgana, portrayed by a stunning Helen Mirren?? I coveted her long, blonde ponytail; I wanted that [completely anachronistic] black fishnet off-the-shoulder number that so bewitches her mentor, Merlin. And whenever she or the wizard cast a spell, they use Old Irish dialect to speak the Charm of Making. It goes like this:

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The Charm of Making on parchment using a J. Herbin glass dip pen (not shown here) and Noodler’s Ink™  in Walnut

Here’s a stab at how it’s pronounced:  AH nahl NATH rack, OOTH vahss BEH thood, DOCH vell dee EN vay.

The incantation translates as:  Serpent’s breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making

It’s all made-up twaddle, of course, but it makes for good entertainment … and when Morgana uses it on Merlin, and on her half-brother, Arthur … gods’ teeth! Hell hath no fury like a sorceress scorned!

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A recent custom order: solid copper hammered pendant with hand-engraving and aged patina on leather cord

I won’t be quite so dramatic when next I craft. But if I could utter a spell that actually did make things go faster, or work the way I want it to, I probably would. Although small and simple-looking, much of what I make takes days to complete. The holiday season will be here in a lightning flash, and I need to replenish my shop. I’ll do things the old-fashioned way, however:  by hand, using simple tools, meticulous attention to detail and lots of elbow grease. In the meantime, you may see a few examples of completed work or works in progress this month, which is all about the charm of making things ourselves.

Works in Progress

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A quiet corner of my worktable, where items for my shop and blog wait patiently for completion by the World’s #1 Procrastinator!

Pretty little things

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Beautiful, tiny turned wood bowl made by my friend, Chris Arcand, a very talented teacher, wood- and leatherworker, chainmailler, musician and archer. The bowl is about 1.75” in diameter and is made of Claro walnut. I’m proud to own it!