Saturday, March 7, 2009

Oh, Now I've Finally Gone and Done It

Well, I've been threatening for years that I was eventually going to take up the art of chainmaille*. Of course, I've never actually gotten around to doing it. I mean, when does a Daddy of three have time to sit down for hours on end, bending little metal rings open and closed, open and closed....?

Well, we had to make a run by Lowe's today, so I decided on a lark to take up this new hobby--at least for one experimental project.

I bought a box of 100 lockwashers, and a couple extra sets of pliers.

Now, I suspect that if any maille hobbyists are reading this, they're laughing at me right now. "Lockwashers?" And my response to them would be: Hey, this is just an experiment. I know: if I really wanted to do this right, I would either order some rings from someone, or I'd get (or make) a mandrel so I could wind my own rings from some decent heavy-gauge wire. Yes, yes, I know that. I just wanted to make a quick and dirty project so I could get a feel for how much work it is.

So after I got home, I got out the pliers, broke open the box of lockwashers, and set to work. And I can proudly report that I learned a few things almost immediately:
  • If you're going to use lockwashers for your rings, pick ones that have a large inner-diameter-to-thickness ratio. The washers I picked were so thick that I could barely get four washers linked onto one. It was also extremely hard to close the links with the pliers, especially when the link was looped through four others--lockwashers are tough to bend even under the best of circumstances, but with that much stuff stuck through them, it became hard to get a good grip on them with the pliers.
  • And I quickly had to abandon my dreams of making a standard European 4-in-1 pattern. While I could physically get each link through four others, it was such a tight fit that I couldn't lay the work flat enough to get the next set of links through properly. I had to go for a looser pattern, so I went with one that was (apparently) commonly used in feudal Japan. (It doesn't have the stopping power of the European pattern, but it's lighter-weight and has better flexibility).
  • Given how solid and dense the maille made from lockwashers is, it's pretty apparent that a suit made from the stuff would be ridiculously heavy--even compared to other armor which everyone expects to be heavy.
  • And it would be expensive, too. Cheap lockwashers sell for about a dime a pop. Given that, according to Wikipedia, a typical hauberk takes anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 rings (and that's with bigger rings than the ones I was using!) it's pretty obvious that this is not the way to do a big project. I would be spending ridiculous amounts of my family's money to make an obsolete piece of armor that weighs way too much to be practical even when it uses a less protective pattern than the standard one. Mmm-hmm...
  • I needn't have worried about the kids running off and getting in trouble while I was distracted with all the rings. Turns out the kids were just as distracted by it as I was. The Boy was taking his nap while I was doing this, but both girls were right next to me, wondering "What are you doing, Daddy? Daddy! Daddy! Can I help, Daddy? Can I do it too? What are those things, Daddy? Daddy? Are you listening?" But while I didn't have fears of them running off and getting into trouble, I did have problems with them getting too close. Occasionally those pliers would slip while I was trying to bend a ring, and all that unbalanced force on those pliers could take out an eye, or break a tooth, or gash a hole in one's arm (or chest) if the craftsman isn't careful. Besides, the girls wanted to pick up the rings and play with them, which wasn't actually very helpful.
And when I was done with the project, the girls got in continuous arguments over whose turn to play with it it was. And when I told them that it was my turn to play with it (since I was after all the one who made the durn thing), they were nevertheless inspired again to pull out the various weapons of war we crafted back in late 2007 and beat the tar out of each other.

(And this time they started yelling Shakespearean-sounding taunts and insults at each other as they whacked away. At one point the Fairy yelled out something like, "My brain is sharper than my sword!" which made me completely lose it.)

So I have some conclusions: first, this will be a lot of work. And it might give me repetitive strain injury. But, it's fun. Seriously: I was Making Something. And not only was I Making Something, I was taking ordinary-looking lockwashers and turning them into something absolutely lovely.

Here's what my piece looks like if you pick it up by one corner, and let it drape into a diamond shape:
...and here's what it looks like when you grab it by two adjacent corners and pull it tight:
Believe it or not, that is ninety-six lockwashers in that little piece. And it took me about two hours to complete. No doubt much of that time was wasted through my inexperience and my dubious choice of ring material, but still--it would take a long time to complete a decent-sized suit of armor with this stuff. That piece, which took two hours to craft, is no more than three inches square.

But I have noticed some interesting properties about it. It's very flexible, especially along the bias. The page I linked to above on the Hitoye Gusari pattern had this eyebrow-raising description of its properties:
Hitoye-Gusari is particularly flexible when rotated 45 degrees, so that the grain is like a diamond, instead of a square. On the bias the pattern has an incredible ability to collapse around complex shapes, such as well-endowed chests.
Oh, the possibilities that spring to mind as I turn that nugget of wisdom over in my head**....


So, now what?

Well, knowing me, It'll be a while before I get up the gumption to go buy a mandrel to make my own rings. But when I have that thing (and I will let you all know, dear internets, when that great day comes), expect blogging to be light for a year or two until I have linked together 15,000 rings and provided the Happy Boy with the absolutely coolest Halloween Costume Any then-4-year-old boy has ever possessed. Or five, or six, or seven years old; we'll see how long this whole thing takes. ;-)


Credit where it's due: I got several good ideas by looking at Dylon Whyte's website. The pages I linked to above, which provide very complete instructions for crafting the ring patterns, were drawn from his site. There's a lot of good stuff there, including some gorgeous maille jewelry (and the patterns thereto!) available for sale, in case anyone in my readership is interested.

*I know--that spelling will look weird to most of my readers, especially within my own family. It turns out that "maille" or "chainmaille" is the preferred spelling of this term among modern hobbyists and armorers. The trouble with the terms "chainmail" or "chain mail" is that they sound too much like those illegal through-the-mail pyramid schemes, so alternate spellings--drawn from legitimate archaic and foreign sources--have been adopted.

**If you haven't been reading this blog since the very beginning, you may not know that I've already sounded off on the issue of armored boobs. Bottom line: I'm for 'em.

1 comment:

B. Durbin said...

I didn't get my act together in time to make a great costume for baby Gareth, so it's now going to be a costume for One-Year-Old Gareth. It will involve chainmaille... but this is the important thing. It will involve the illusion of more chainmaille than there already is.

It's very simple. You come up with what a knight costume (sans plate and hood) looks like, then you only create the maille that actually shows, and attach it directly to the outfit. So, for example, if you're going for the look of a chainmaille corselet like Frodo wears, you're only going to see the cap sleeves, right? There's a long-sleeved shirt underneath and a tunic over the top. So you create those little caps, stitch them to the tunic, and wear over the long-sleeved shirt. Voilá. Chainmaille for kids without the extra work or weight.