At the end of July, I’m teaching 6 chainmaille classes at a Girl Scout summer camp. I did this last year and it was tons of fun. Whenever I teach a class, I write up a handout with pictures and instructions so that the students can make more at home. I have to take some time to make new handouts for the new classes in a few weeks, but I thought I would publish my popular handouts on the blog here. Chainmaille is a lot of fun and there’s nothing like the compliments you get when wearing chainmaille jewelry! I love that the delicate pieces of silver jewelry I make have a link (forgive the pun) to the armor that protected knights and others for thousands of years.
First, a little background information about chainmaille. The art of chainmaille is based on the original armour-making techniques of linking separate rings together to create a “fabric.” Chainmaille (or mail as it was known then) was invented some time in the middle of the 1st millennium BC, but the earliest piece found is from the 4th century BC. Chainmaille was great for protecting against slashing and piercing weapons, which caused deadly infections, but didn’t help against crushing or bruising. Both Europe and Asia had chainmaille which was likely developed independently. European chainmaille was used to create whole shirts (hauberks) and head protection (coifs) and was made with riveted iron rings. Asian chainmaille was made from smaller rings that weren’t welded or riveted and the chainmaille was used to cover small vulnerable areas in their armour like the underarm. Asian chainmaille was often sewn to a fabric or leather backing, sometimes completely concealed between layers.
Artists have been adapting and creating new chainmaille for years. Just as embroidery has different stitches and knitting has cables and lace, chainmaille has “weaves.” These weaves fall into “families” based on their general method of construction.
This first picture is Byzantine, a very popular weave in the European family. The second picture is Oriental 4-in-1, from the Oriental family. You can see how distinct they look. They’re woven in very different ways.
To make chainmaille, you need two pairs of piers. Most chainmaillers use needle nose or chain nose, but I like to use a pair of bent nose pliers and a pair of flat nose pliers. Pliers without teeth are best if you’re going to be making silver or gold jewelry (the bracelets above are made with silver, niobium, and titanium). You’ll hold a pair in each hand, using them to open and close jump rings by twisting them towards and away from you. (Never pull jump rings from side to side! It’ll weaken the metal and mess up the shape of the ring.)
The jump rings can be made by hand by wrapping wire around a dowel to get a coil, then cutting the coil with snips or a jeweler’s saw to get individual rings. Or, my favorite method, save yourself the hassle and let a machine do all that coiling and cutting for you! Trust me, it takes forever to get enough rings for a large project like a necklace. Some of my favorite jump ring suppliers are the Ring Lord (great prices and variety, but terrible shipping time) and Spiderchain, a very talented chainmaille artist and of course, Etsy.
Chainmaille rings are named using the gauge of the wire used and the diameter of the dowel used to make the rings. For example, if I were to wrap a 20ga wire around a 1/8″ dowel rod, I would have a 20ga 1/8″ ring. Some ring sizes are better than others for certain weaves, like suggested needle sizes for knitting. You don’t want to knit fingering weight with size 7 needles (most of the time) and you don’t want to make a Byzantine weave with 18ga 1/8″ rings. Unlike knitting, though, where you can still knit with non-recommended needles, if you have a ring that is too small the weave will just not work. You just won’t be able to fit all the rings together. Most weaves have an “aspect ratio” that works best. The aspect ratio of a ring is the mm or inch measurement of the ring’s inner diameter (the space inside the ring) divided by the width of the wire (the mm or inch measurement, not the gauge). This is a great article about the effect of aspect ratio (or AR) on chainmaille: Aspect Ratio on Maille Artisans.
Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, on to the actual tutorial. This one is for the Byzantine weave, one of my favorites.
The PDF file includes suggested ring sizes, pictures, and written instructions. Keep in mind that the PDF was originally written to be used in a class (I’m editing it to be more stand-alone, but who knows when that’ll be done) – if you have questions, I’m happy to answer them! Or, if you’d like to find out more about chainmaille on your own, I highly recommend browing around Maille Artisans, Phong’s Tutorials, or the Ring Lord’s Forums. Be warned, though: Chainmaille is highly addictive! Ring stashes can be easier to store than yarn stashes but much harder to forgive when they fall out of the closet onto your head.