A Brief History of Chainmaille
Chainmail, chain mail or chainmaille is the practice of linking rings to create interesting patterns, or more traditionally “sheets” of flexible metal for the purpose of armor or decoration.
The name comes from the French word maille, derived from the Latin macula, which means mesh of net. The most common spelling for the chain is chain mail, but sheets are still referred to as maille. Many artists feel that the spelling chain maille or simply maille (even though it is a modern name for it) is truer to the origins of the art and helps distinguish it from chain mail letters. Some believe that since mail or maille literally means a sheet of chain adding chain to the word is redundant. All variations are basically accepted as a matter of common usage.
There are three major families of chainmaille:
This is one of the oldest forms of chain maille dating back about 3000 years, the Japanese weaves worked by linking rings in simplistic flat box structures or hexagonal grid patterns. Known as “kasuri, vertical links were generally oval rings connected with round rings. The rings were much smaller than those the Europeans would use, and were often lacquered to prevent rust before being sewn onto a backing of cloth or leather.
The basic European 4 in 1 is the most commonly seen flat maille weave. European maille, likely created by the Celts around 400 B.C.E., developed from initially sewing wrought iron rings edge to edge into leather armor to reinforce it. It was soon realized that more flexibility and strength could be obtained by linking the rings directly to one another in interlocking fashions. Early on the pattern alternated between rows of soldered rings and rows of riveted rings, but after 14th century all rings were riveted. When the Romans arrived they adopted the practice into their own armor.
Other weaves in this family have been developed based on similar principals, such as Byzantine, although this was certainly used purely for decoration. Byzantine chainmaille was probably invented in Italy, and the design is still very commonly seen in Italian jewelry stores.
The invention of gun powder and the changing face of war made chain maille all but obsolete around 15th century, but today chain maille is still seen frequently in a wide range of places. Historic societies and Renaissance armorers still create and wear maille, generally of the European variety. Maille is made from either wrought iron or steel, riveted to resemble the original art, and worn in reenactments of fights.
Maille was used decoratively in military settings as a throwback to the old styles long after its practical use had ended. The British Territorial Army still adorns their epaulettes with maille as a status symbol. Some Turkish, Indian and Persian armies were using chain maille armor as recently as one hundred years ago.
Scuba divers, animal handlers and butcher frequently use European 4 in 1 maille in gloves and under suits since the density of maille makes a wonderfully protective cover against sharp objects.
The other major category is, of course, jewelry. Chainmaille jewelry, while often limited to Gothic or Pagan styles has made something of a comeback in recent years. More artists have discovered that it can look extremely feminine when made in precious metals and delicate designs. Many beading stores and jewelry societies teach the basic weaves using jump rings, which are open rings not intended to be soldered for this purpose. For decorative use, the supportive structure of the weaves is enough to ensure the rings don’t pull open.
As a point of trivia the maille outfits worn in Monty Python and the Holy Grail were actually woolen army sweaters soaked in water. A tight budget ruled out the hiring of real maille suits, but they found that these were just as convincing from a distance. Chainmail vs Chain Mail vs Chainmaille