Monday, February 11, 2008

Chain Maille : Ancient and Modern Uses

By on Monday, February 11, 2008 3 Comments

Chain maille has a history going back some 3000 years. Not much is known about its origin but it developed independently in Asia and Europe. There is some evidence ring mail was first worn by mounted Scythian warriors from the southern Russian Steppes and later adopted by the Celts and Romans.

Chain maille is a metal fabric made from interlocking rings. It was effective at blocking sword and axe cuts, an occupational hazard faced by soldiers long ago. Bruising and broken bones were easier to deal with given the primitive medical care then but catastrophic blood loss and deep wounds were not. The soldiers also wore heavily padded garments underneath the maille and metal helmets to reduce crushing blows. What about arrows? At close enough range and thus with sufficient velocity and force, arrows do pierce through maille.

As any medieval fan will tell you, chain maille reached its peak popularity in the Middle Ages when whole suits of them were developed. Chain maille refers to the actual material with different names going to individual garments. The young man in the photo is sporting a modern mail hood called a coif. The manly knights in many a romance story as well as the real historical ones, wore knee-length iron mail shirts called hauberks. They had to be brawny for a hauberk alone could weigh 10-15 kg (22-33 lbs)! Nevermind the helmet, metal gauntlets, leggings and his weapons. Chain maille was much more expensive to make (think about it) and was eventually replaced with plate armour which was not as flexible. And neither chain maille nor plate armour worked when mankind developed even more effective ways of killing and so both eventually fell out of favour.

The word mail comes from the Latin, macula, meaning "mesh of a net". Just plain mail/mayle/maile/maille or chain were originally used. The double barreled chain maille is of more modern usage (1700s). Should it be chain maille or chain mail? Either works for one is the French term and other English. But chain maille does avoid confusion with the variety you get occasionally in your email box.

Chain maille artisans who use the European 4-1 weave would have already guessed that this pattern was dominant in Europe. The maille consisted of riveted rings or a combination of welded shut links with solid ones. But maille was also used in Japan in the 14th century where it was called kusari. There, the square 4-in-1 pattern (so gusari) and a hexagonal 6-in-1 pattern (hana gusari) were highly favoured. Unlike European maille, Japanese maille involves smaller rings which were not welded shut. They also sometimes used split ring equivalents. The Japanese used maille only to connect their scaled Samurai armour pieces.

Chain maille while no longer used in modern warfare still lives on in movies. The closeups for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy involved real and heavy metal chain maille but most of the costumes by the New Zealand film special effects WETA Workshop were really a mix of metal and plastic rings. If you want to make your own lighter (and cheaper) maille costumes like they did for your medieval fan, check this website for step by step ABS/PVC maille.

If you have a quirky British sense of humour and enjoy the extremely low budget Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie, you'll be amused to know they not only couldn't afford real horses for the knights (they went cloppety-clop instead with coconut shells) but the chain maille was knitted out of string sprayed with metallic paint!

There are tons of medieval fans who wear chain maille in historical reenactments. There are also plenty of sexy maille clothing for women including bras which all strike me as drafty, cold and uncomfortable, much like medieval castles! But then, what do I know?

Chain maille serve as protective gear for butchers and scuba divers in shark-infested waters. Apparently also used by British policemen facing knife wielding assailants although I am not quite sure whether chain maille gloves are standard police issue ("One moment, old chap, while I don on these handy gloves before you charge me with that sharp knife!").

Chain maille is also popular in jewelry making today, and is the focus of a short three part series this week.

Picture Source

References
M.A.I.L Maille Artisans International League
Regia.org's Arms and Armour
Wikipedia : Mail (Armour)
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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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3 comments:

  1. Excellent article!

    I love making chain maille. I love the feel of the weave, and really, I don't view chain maille as the medieval armor and clothing so many people associate with it. I view it as simply a member of the chain family, of which so many styles of chains are made. It's just that centuries ago some people realized it could be used for other purposes. As a designer specializing in chain maille, I view my challenge as one of making chain maille modern and sometimes edgy. While I admire those who make the more traditional types of chain maille artifacts and jewelry, I want to take it up a notch and make it more publicly popular. I don't know if I'm succeeding, but hopefully I am.

    Thanks for taking the time to educate the public about chain maille.

    XO
    Miachelle

    ReplyDelete
  2. Miachelle - you most certainly do take it up a notch!! I love your all your chain maille work.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If you want to defeat your chain maille wearing opponent, just wear your jogging shorts and make them chase you in the middle of a 100 degree summer. They will drop dead from exhaustion. Garaunteed.

    ReplyDelete

 

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