Fandom: Medieval (Fantasy, RenFaire, or otherwise)
Fanwork Type: Cosplay
Difficulty: Weaving ~~ Easy; Coiling ~~ Easy to intermediate; Materials Acquisition ~~ Easy to intermediate.
Additional notes: There are lots of ways to weave chainmaille... Lots of weaves, which typically fall into one of five categories - European, Persian, Japanese, Hybrid, and Spiral. This tutorial focuses on the most commonly-seen maille, European 4-in-1. If you watch any of the LoTR movies, and look at the chainmaille Aragorn, Boromir, and Gimli wear, I believe this is it, up close.
I'll be adding other weaves soon, and I'll do my best to show how to weave them together. A lot of chainmailling is practice and experimentation.
WARNING: This is a lot of text and pictures. I'm assuming you know nothing of the equipment and processes that go into the overhead of making chainmaille, so I'm covering everything. Later tutorials will be more direct. Also, if this is unclear about how to weave, I can direct you to other tutorials, particularly ones with better images for reference.
So, if you're still reading this, you're at least slightly interested in making chainmaille like this:
Just as a disclaimer, some of these sections are very long. I’m putting in lots of little pointers, and trying to be as descriptive as I can, at the expense of brevity, because I (in most cases) can’t be there to show you in person how things work. It’s also image-heavy, so if you’re having trouble with it loading, that’s why.
As it’s so long, this table-of-contents-ish set of links should help. Each section has a link to jump back up here at its end.
Making it Look Like Chainmaille
A Few Problems to Keep an Eye Out For
It's actually really easy to create European 4-in-1, with the right tools, and the "right tools" can be acquired at most home improvement shops. Your main tools will be pliers (because weaving with hands-only can be VERY annoying)...
With most projects, you'll want a pair of standard pliers (left), and one of needle-nose (center). When dealing with smaller rings, though, a pair of long-nose pliers (right) works better than the standard ones.
Rings are the most basic elements of chainmaille creation, obviously. Not having rings means that you can't do anything, regardless of how good your other tools are. Now comes the big decision - make or buy rings. Yes, there are places online where you can buy rings; I'm partial to The Ring Lord. It's usually cheaper and faster to make your own rings, but it does require your personal effort to make them.
If you do decide to make your rings, you'll need a few extra things, one of which is optional.
First is the wire you'll be using. Perhaps the best starting material is galvanized steel, henceforth referred to as "Galvy" - it's not too heavy, it doesn't rust, and it's easy to acquire; home improvement stores (like Home Depot, etc.) should have, or there are always places that specialize in metal products. I used to buy Galvy at a place that advertized sheet metal with their sign/name. I personally recommend 14- or 16-gauge Galvy. It's malleable enough that you won't have any problems, but sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of being bent, coiled, and otherwise tweaked.
Galvy warning: Galvy doesn't rust because it's coated with zinc. Do NOT wear chainmaille made of galvy directly on your skin. Your skin can break down and leach the zinc, which will discolor your skin, and with that kind of zinc, is not healthy at all. Just be sure to have clothing in between, which you should anyways.
If you're not keen on Galvy, or can't find any, you can practice by going to a craft store, and picking up 20-gauge craft wire. It's sturdy enough to survive the rigors of practicing, and silver or gold craft wire can look quite nice. However, you'll be working with quite-small rings here.
Later on, stainless steel and bright aluminum make very good materials. When looking into these, I'd suggest looking into online orders through The Ring Lord.
Second is something capable of cutting metal - wire cutters, tin snips, aviation snips, a metal saw, a small grinding wheel... All work. I'd suggest the saw or sawing wheel first, or aviation snips if you don't have access to the first two; these are usually the most efficient. Sorry, no picture here.
Just a warning... If you're planning on working with very small rings (small enough that the diameter across the inside edges of the ring is 3/8" or less), you're pretty much stuck using wire cutters, because saws will remove too much of the ring, and aviation snips won't fit inside the ring.
Thirdly, you'll need an object to coil around. A sturdy dowel, a metal rod, a section of pipe - all these work. I advise putting a hole into whichever you use, so that you can place the wire into that, and thus anchor the end for when you coil. Coiling is easy; think of it as making yourself a keyring, around your dowel/rod/pipe... except you're not stopping after a few goes around. You're going to stop once you get either to the end of what you're coiling around, or the end of your wire.
Helpful hints for coiling:
:: It helps to find a way to guide your wire without using your hands. Controlling the spool of wire with your feet is easiest, and requires little effort to set up and/or do.
:: You'll be turning your dowel/rod/pipe with one hand, and guiding the wire with the other, so that as it coils, it rests as tight as possible, looking like a really long bolt when done perfectly. (Do note that even I can't do them perfectly.) Wear a cloth or leather glove on your guiding hand; wire-burn isn't pleasant. If you're working with craft wire, like I mentioned earlier, you won't need a glove.
:: Use a coiling size appropriate to the wire. 14- or 16-gauge wire is best at 3/8" inner diameter (the diameter, from one inside edge to the other, is 3/8", also meaning you used a 3/8" diameter dowel/rod/pipe) or 1/2" ID (because "inner diameter" gets to be a pain to write...), while the 20-gauge craft wire is best around 1/4" ID.
:: The object you coil around is commonly called a "mandril". The easiest mandril to start will is a really large bolt (like "nuts and bolts"). These I know are sold at Home Depot/etc, and the threads on them will act as a guide for your wire. Very useful, but only if you're dealing with wire 16-gauge or thicker. Also, note that thicker wire has a lower number (i.e., 12-gauge is thicker than 14, and 14-gauge is thicker than 16), and that you'll still have to hand-guide the wire.
Optional item: If your mandril is small enough to fit inside it, you can use a hand drill to speed up the process a bit. Just mount your mandril inside the drill, where the bit would be, put the wire with it, to anchor it in the drill, and slowly work the drill, while guiding the wire with your other hand.
Time to start setting up to weave. This step assumes you have your pliers and your rings. Now that you're here, it doesn't matter whether you bought your rings, or coiled them and clipped them into individual rings, just so long as you have some.
Rings have two positions - open, and closed.
Closed means the two ends of the segment of wire are touching, and open means that you took a flat ring, and bent one side out of line with the other. The easiest way is to grab each side of the ring (using the cut in the wire as your midpoint), hold it so you have the entire face of the ring facing you, and bent one side towards/away from you (preference, in most cases...).
The most basic element of European 4-in-1 is... well... the 4-in-1. That term refers to the relationship of the rings ~ not including the outside edge, every ring has four rings passing through it. To make this basic cluster (yep, they're called "clusters"), take four closed rings, and rest them in an open ring, like so: (Sorry about the blurry image...)
It helps to lay out the cluster, so it looks something like:
Also, notice the pattern; because all the rings rest on an angle, thanks to resting on each other, with the high ends pointing in alternating directions:
There you go! You've made the most basic element of European 4-in-1... In fact, if we're getting technical, you just made the smallest possible sheet of 4-in-1. Congrats!
But we want more. After all, we want something like that small sheet from the beginning, right? That brings us to...
Making it Look Like Chainmaille
Ok, so we want our little 4-in-1's to group up, to stand together as a sheet of chainmaille. The first way is to connect the clusters vertically:
It's on its side because it's easier to see the shadows this way.
To do this in the most basic sense, you'll need two clusters, and one open ring. First, pass the open ring through the two rings on the bottom of the join:
Put the two top rings in the open ring, and close the ring... There you go! Now, you could have done it wrong, but that's really easy to check. I mean, you can see the difference:
See it? Take a look at the directions the improperly-closed rings point:
The easy way to test is to use your fingers, and pull the end rings apart on each side. If it doesn’t look like this:
... Then either it’s right, or you’ve discovered some other error. ;)
After this comes horizontal connecting. You’ll need two pieces of (at least) equal length, and you’ll want to lay them out next to each other like so:
Now take an open ring, and slip it through the two rings on one side. It should rest in the same fashion as the other ring going through those two (except for the fact that it’s an open ring, not closed).
Slip the other two onto the open ring, and then close it with your tools (or by hand if you’ve a pliable enough wire gauge or large enough rings). Rotated 90 degrees, it should look something like this:
Repeat this process of placing and closing open rings into the ones that line up, making sure they hold the pattern of raised edges the rows are already in, and you ought to end up with a small patch of maille…
And, if you connect enough pieces together, or weave it large enough to begin with, you’ll have yourself large patches, like so!
A Few Problems to Keep an Eye Out For
One of my most-hated problems comes from storing open rings. I kid you not, if you leave rings open, or have rings that you’ve cut with wire cutters or tin snips, watch out. These rings will tangle like mad when you just throw them into a small box or bag. It’s the sort of mess that makes a hair knot look easy... And those of you who know what kind of hair I have, it used to be straight, and I kept it kinda long one summer... I know what knots are like.
If you store it like this, expect messes like:
Aluminum is a great material, with some qualifications. If you’re going to order online, watch out for the “Aluminum” section of Ring Purchasing on The Ring Lord. They’re inexpensive, sure, but they have a terrible black rub-off. It comes off with soap and water, but will color your skin a sort of silvery-black until you wash. Look into “Etched Aluminum” or “Bright Aluminum” for a traditional metal look, or “Anodized Aluminum” for some color.
Don’t throw out rings. I’ve some 14-gauge Galvy rings at 3/4" ID, and I’ve bent these things plenty of times without them seeming to weaken at all. These rings are metal... They can be reused.
Galvy is a great starting material, but do NOT, above all other materials, wear this directly on your skin. Chainmaille should always be worn over some sort of padding garment, and Galvy in particular. The zinc coating on Galvy keeps it from rusting, but can also be sufficiently toxic to the human body to discolor your skin in the area it touches after prolongued wear. You're fine if you're just working with it and weaving; it's the wearing that'll get you. Besides, having a barrier between you and your maille, even if it is just regular clothes, will keep the rings from biting you.
Hopefully this was helpful in getting you started in making yourself some chainmaille for your cosplay endeavors!... If you’re thinking about medieval cosplay, making your own armor is definitely an option to think about; having someone else do it can be quite costly.