How to Make Medieval Chain Mail at Home
It Started With A Passion For All Things Medieval
My husband has been making a chain mail shirt from coat hangers for about 15 years now. The chain mail shirt has been in the works for so long because his interests are varied, and this is just one of his many projects. But it is usually the one that comes up first at the dinner table when we are feeding the missionaries for our church. Usually while we are heaping the hot steaming food on the missionaries' plates, we make small talk about our lives. The missionaries joke with and tease the small children, then begin with the usual questions. What do you do? How did you meet your wife? Where did you get married?
Not halfway through dinner, my husband is going back to the bedroom and pulling a large sweater box from underneath the bed, where he keeps his masterpiece. The mail shirt is well-constructed and very heavy. It lacks sleeves, but already weighs over thirty pounds and reaches to my husband's waist. He is a trim man, about 6 feet tall. The shirt has literally thousands of links, all completely handmade—from coat hangers.
Making Chain Mail from Coat Hanger Wire: The Technique
There are several methods for making chain mail. My husband's method focuses on ease and the tools he has on hand. The most time consuming part of his hobby is making the metal rings that he later links together into a suit pattern. To make perfect round rings, he has developed his own clever and straightforward technique. I don't know if his technique is similar to medieval armorers, but it really seems to work for him.
First, he unwraps the coat hanger, and straightens the wire as best he can. Next, he uses a metal rod he got from a cast iron fireplace cleaning set we once owned. We kept the base and rod from that set, so it stands up vertically, and is heavy enough to withstand the twisting and turning that comes next. Next, using a pair of pliers and plain elbow grease, he tightly wraps the rings around his metal rod, creating 30 or more perfectly circular rings of a uniform size. Then he uses a pair of wire snips to cut the wire into individual rings.
He keeps his completed rings in a plastic box with a tight lid. When he is ready, he links them together using the common 4 in 1 pattern that is often found on armor from knights in western Europe. This pattern links four rings to one ring together. You could think of the armorer's craft as a sort of extreme knitting.
Now dinner is forgotten, and the missionaries move with my husband into the living room, while they take off their ties and reach high into the air so they can try the shirt on for themselves and get a photograph to send home to their girlfriends (or mothers, if they aren't so lucky). Usually their missionary companions joke around and take snapshots with their digital cameras.
My husband isn't a prideful man, but he enjoys drawing out the fun, so usually, due to my husband's overdeveloped sense of modesty, I'm the one who then says, "Go on honey, bring out the sword and shield AND helmet too."
And they leave full of good food uttering the now familiar words, The folks at home are never gonna believe this!
My husband has a degree in medieval history, and has an avid interest in heraldry, medieval warfare, and arms and armor. He is the kind of guy who does things not because they are useful, but to see if he can. He isn't a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, but between you and me, I think he'd join, if only he had enough time.
Knight's Armor and Chain Mail Lingo
This information is accurate for the high middle ages, generally considered to be the 13th century.
Knight—A member of the upper classes in medieval society who has been knighted.
Page—The first level of knight training, usually beginning at the age of 7 and ending around 14. Pages learned how to serve, play chess, and learned complex rules of etiquette.
Squire—The second level of knight training beginning at age 14. Squires began the military part of their training, including learning to joust and wield a sword, and they accompanied their masters in battle.
Hauberk—One of several medieval terms for a chainmail suit, usually referring to a knee-length, long-sleeved suit that included an integral hood and mittens for neck and hand protection. Buying a hauberk would cost the modern equivalent of purchasing a house!
4 in 1—The standard Western European pattern of linking rings to make chainmail. Each ring is linked to 4 others, hence the name 4 in 1. However, this name is modern, because the medeivals just called it "mail".
Armorer—Someone who makes armor, swords, or weapons. Amorers were craftsmen, and though their products were pricey, they did not enjoy a high position in medieval society.
Ventail—A chainmail "skirt" that hangs from the back of a helmet in the 15th and 16th centuries.
True Depictions of Knights in the Medieval Ages
Why Coat Hangers?
To make a chain mail shirt you need wire, and lots of it. Chain mail can be constructed from varying weights or gauges of wire, but like in knitting, the heavier the material you use to construct the garment, the fewer links you will need to complete it. My husband is using coat hangers because we are the ultimate funky frugal family, and he inherited a large number of them from his mother-in-law, who was so happy to give them away, that they started to multiply in our closet when we were sleeping at night.
Coat hanger wire is heavier gauge than the metal that was used to make chainmail in medieval times, which is why it is so heavy. But my husband has a day job too, and he admits that his goal is mainly to look good and not to be completely authentic.
Medieval armorers had an exacting trade and were getting paid to link thousands of rings together. My husband's rings are "butt-jointed", which means that ends of the wire in the rings just butt up against each other. In authentic medieval armor, the ends of the rings overlap, are riveted, which gives the armor superior strength and durability. But it takes about 5 times longer to make!
How to Make a Simple Box Chain Mail Pattern
The pictures of the knights in this hub come mostly from illustrations in the Maciejowski Bible. The Maciejowski Bible is a picture book created in the 13th century by an unknown source in France. It is named for one of its recent owners, Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski, Bishop of Kraków, who lived during the 17th century. As an interesting aside, After Maciejowski gave the bible to the Shah of Persia, the bible was annotated in Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian.
The Maciejowski Bible is now owned by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and it has several other names, including the Morgan Bible, the Crusader Bible, and the Book of Kings. It is considered one of the best sources for accurate information about clothing styles, armor, and weaponry during that time period. It illustrates stories from the Bible using contemporary costuming to depict the biblical characters, but it did not contain any text, originally.
My husband visited the Pierpont Morgan Library on a business trip to New York City not too long ago, but unfortunately, this priceless and precious object was not available for display at the time. However, the library has a great online exhibit showing the pages from the Maciejowski Bible.
My husband's suit of chainmail (which he hopes some day will be a complete hauberk) is styled after the picture of his medieval persona, whom he has named Robert Redmantle.
How To Make A Chainmail Shirt/Suit Part 1
How to Make Chainmail Suit/Shirt Part 2
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