If you have followed my previous posts you will have seen that I have been fascinated by making chainmaille or chain maille. There are so many different variations of designs that you can make simply by linking metal rings together. I was interested to find out about the history of chain maille and how it evolved from purely functional (battle armour) to the more decorative versions we see today.
Chain maille is a type of armour consisting of small metal rings linked together in a pattern to form a mesh. It dates back to at least the 4th century BC and was inspired by an earlier form of armour called scale armour that consisted of overlapping scales sewn onto leather or padded linen. There are descriptions of how Ancient Persians (5th century BC) used horsehair to sew scales cut from horse’s hooves into overlapping rows on leather to create armour that was both attractive and strong. Magnificent golden scaled armour has been described in Persian breastplates and found in Scythian warrior burials (The Amazons).
The Celts are generally said to have invented chain maille around 300-500 AD, initially sewing wrought iron rings onto leather armour to reinforce it. They soon realised that they could get more flexibility and strength by linking the rings together. To start with the pattern alternated a row of solid or soldered rings and a row of riveted rings. Eventually all the rings were riveted as they had more strength and held together better when the armour was pierced with a spear.
Chain maille was common in battlefield armour throughout the Dark Ages, Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. The invention of gun powder and the subsequent changing face of war made it much less practical and effective. Chain maille armour was introduced to the Middle East and Asia through the Romans and was adopted by the Persians in the 3rd century AD. From the Middle East, chain maille was quickly adopted in Central Asia and in India. It was commonly used by Turk and the Mughal armies. The Ottoman Empire used chain maille armour in their armies until the 18th century and spread its use into North Africa. By far the most common weave pattern used for armour was the basic European 4-in-1 design.
But one of the oldest forms of chain maille (kusari) is from Japan, dating back about 3000 years. Japanese kusari differed in that it used rings of different shapes (combining oval rings with circular rings) and the rings were much smaller than ‘European’ rings. Japanese rings were never riveted but it is said that the wire was very hard and highly tempered so the maille was as strong as that made using riveted rings. Sometimes the rings were like our split rings. The rings were often lacquered to prevent rust before the maille was sewn onto a backing of cloth or leather. There were 3 main designs used: Japanese 4-in-1 which is a square pattern incorporating the oval and circular rings; Japanese 6-in-1 which is a hexagonal pattern giving a very dense kusari used to protect fragile bones (such as hands) from being broken or severed; and later they used the basic European 4-in-1 design but hung so that the pattern expanded vertically rather than horizontally.
Although no longer used for armour, chain maille is still used practically today: butchers and woodcarvers use chain maille gloves and jackets to prevent injury; it is also used as a screen to prevent shards of metal from harming employees and equipment; scuba divers use chain maille to fend off shark bites; animal control officers and animal trainers use it to protect them from animal bites; and police in some countries use chain maille gloves when confronting people armed with knives. There are still many historical societies who have armour made for the purposes of re-enactments and displays.
Another major use of chain maille today is of course for decorative purposes and for jewellery. There are of course many more weaves used in jewellery making and many of the names, such as Byzantine or Persian, are used to describe a particular decorative style rather than necessarily having derived from that place or era. Chain jewellery may be more normally associated with the chunkier styles of Gothic or Pagan but made with precious metals and delicate designs it can look extremely feminine. The addition of beads or semi-precious stones can take it to a whole new level.
For more of my posts on Chainmaille Jewellery please see:
Chain Maille Jewellery Designs
More Chain Maille Cuff Bracelets
Chainmaille Wallet Chain