Every now and then I get a puzzled look when I tell someone that I make chain maille jewelry. Many envision someone in full armor, all up in chains and preparing to engage in a jousting match to gain the favor of a fair maiden. But alas, as romantic as that may sound, most chain maille jewelry today has very little to do with armor and can even be quite delicate in appearance. The intricate and complex look drew me in right away. Well, that and the fact that I actually grew up with a real medieval castle as my next door neighbor. To me the stories about knights and maidens were never as much fairy tales as palpable history.
So today I would like to explore some of chain maille’s history and give you a little more insight into its possibilities. You can find more detailed information here and here if you like. The true origins remain a great deal of speculation to this day, but one thing is for sure: chain maille has been around for a long time and that will not change. If you are looking for jewelry that will stand the test of time, well, here it is.
As for the lingo, chain maille patterns are referred to as “weaves”. There are several different ways to spell the term chain maille, like chainmail, chainmaille or even just mail. None of them are more right or wrong, so I have chosen to settle on the version that I see the most and seems to make the most sense to me personally: chain maille.
Probably the most important factor in creating chain maille weaves is Aspect Ratio. Without the proper ratio, which is always indicated in any type of instruction, the given weave will simply not work. To be perfectly honest, I have my favorite patterns and have concluded strictly through trial and error which ring sizes and gauges work best for the designs I am currently working with. But if you would like to delve deeper into this subject, I have found a couple of excellent resources to help you with this here and here.
While this does not necessarily accurately reflect the actual origin of these distinct variations, they are split into three categories:
Japanese weaves are more of a flat weave, meaning that the rings that make up the weave are arranged in patterns with the rings next to each other, rather than overlapping as is the case with dragon scale. They generally have a “floral” and very structured grid like appearance. In general the Japanese style weaves are probably the easiest kind to learn for the beginner. I love these types of weaves, because they lend themselves well to creating a variety of geometric shape like this:
The term “Persian” actually appears to be a misnomer, as there is no true connection for these patterns to be traced back to ancient Persia (present day Iran). But this family of weaves is generally known for its more complicated and intricate weaves and is probably better suited for the intermediate chain mailler.
European style weaves are believed to have evolved from the the armor patterns first used by the Celts around 400 BC. The dragon scale weave is probably one that most people envision when they think about chain maille. I certainly did.
My hands down favorite weave is the byzantine weave, which is believed to have originated in Italy during an era that is well known for its abundance of precious metals and stones. The jewelry created during this time tended to be quite heavy and was a status symbol. I love it for its intricate look, durability and versatility. It is also a relatively easy design to learn.
Another aspect of chain maille jewelry that is attractive to jewelry artists is the fact that it requires no specialized tools. You can begin making chain maille with as little as a bag of store bought jump rings and two pairs of flat nose pliers. I prefer to cut my own rings from solid copper, Argentium sterling silver or jewelers brass wire. Over time I have found that it would be impossible for me to find and order all of the various ring sizes in different wire gauges and materials. That is something easily accomplished with knitting needles as mandrels and a jewelry saw. There are more high tech ways to cut rings, but this is one that has served me well, is quiet and inexpensive.
Have you ever created chain maille? I would love to hear your experiences, frustrations, triumphs with it! If not, I hope I have inspired you to give chain maille a try! It is a fun art form that truly has endless design possibilities!