Saturday, 21 January 2012

Elephant No. 111: Wire Wrapping

For today's elephant, I thought I'd revisit a somewhat eccentric style of wire wrapping I did a few years ago. I think I made two brooches with this technique as gifts, but never made anything to keep as a sample.

Wire is a flexible, cylindrical strand of metal. It can be made from virtually any material, depending on its final use. In jewellery, silver and gold wire are most common, although copper, steel and base metal wire are also used. In electronics and electrical applications, copper is used for its ability to conduct current. Wire can also be turned into springs and coils for everything from cars and mattresses to toys and stereo speakers.

Wire has been used in jewellery for millennia. Some of the earliest wire was made with rudimentary techniques similar to those still used today, while others employed techniques that have since fallen out of favour.

In antiquity, it is thought that most wire was produced by pulling thin strips of metal through a perforated stone bead. This caused the strips to fold in on themselves, creating fine metal tubes. The strip-drawing technique was used in Egypt as far back as the third millennium B.C., and gold wire from this period usually has seam lines spiralling along the wire. These twisted strips of wire could be converted into solid wires by rolling them between two flat surfaces. 

Sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries A.D., the laborious process of rolling strip twist wire between two surfaces was replaced by the drawing method. Drawing wire involves pulling metal through a series of small holes of diminishing size. Pressure from the sides of the hole compresses the metal and thins the wire. This technique is still used today by jewellers in many countries. Interestingly, although draw plates are usually made of metal, for fine wire they can also be made of precious stones such as diamonds and rubies. This is because hard stones wear better and longer than metal.

Antique wire draw plates for different shapes of wire.

Square and hexagonal wire was likely made with a technique called "swaging". In swaging, a metal rod is beaten between grooved metal blocks, or between a grooved punch and an anvil. Swaging is as old as the spiral twist, and was often used in the creation of fibulae. Swaging blocks can still be purchased today for use by artisan jewellers and blacksmiths. Squared wire has also been used since antiquity for techniques such as filigree and cloisonné. 

Simple filigree design.

The first wire mill in Britain was established in Cornwall in 1568 A.D., and was the country's only wire mill until the second half of the seventeenth century. Today, mass-produced wire is still drawn through a succession of plates, then finished, annealed, coated or insulated in various ways for a wide range of commercial uses.

For today's elephant, as mentioned above, I'm using a somewhat eccentric wrapping technique. I haven't really seen anything this chaotic before, but the more regular and tidy wrapping techniques have never quite appealed to me, so eccentric it is.

To start, I bent the general outline of an elephant head with a sterling-plated copper wire. I don't remember the size, but it's probably something like a 16-gauge. I started with the long pin section, then folded towards the ear, around the lower head and trunk, and back up, attaching the top of the head to the ear section. 

To join the wire, I simply coiled the end tightly around the ear section.

The wire is soft enough that most of this can be done by hand, but for tighter bends and coils, a small pair of pliers is helpful.

Next comes the fun part. For this, I used a fine wire—also sterling-plated copper—that's probably a 26- or 28-gauge. You need fine wire for this part, because it needs to coil around itself and feed over and under. It also had to be fine enough to feed through small crystals for this particular brooch, and I also wanted it to have spidery feel that it wouldn't have had if the wire was heavier. 

For this part of the wiring, it's helpful to cut shorter pieces of wire. If you try to use long pieces, they will kink and bend and end up looking messy. It will also be a pretty frustrating exercise. Most of the pieces I used were about 20–25 cm (8–10 inches) long, which seemed about right.

I had decided to wrap the wire in a way that was aesthetically pleasing to me, rather than making it regular or even. It's a very simple technique: secure the wire by coiling it around any old starting point, then unroll it across the underlying wire form, coil again, head off in another direction, coil again, etc. 

When you're starting, it's a good idea to head towards natural indentations in your basic shape, however slight, as this will secure the wire in place a little better. As you go along, you can use any empty spot. By the way, if you don't like the chaos of this particular design, it's easy enough to wrap in regular lines, or even in a pattern that follows natural contours and outlines.

Once I had a few strands of wire on the form, I added a black crystal for the eye. This is done by simply feeding a crystal onto a piece of wire, and letting it sit in the general vicinity of where you want it in the final design. At this point, it wasn't crucial that the eye stay put: as you wrap more wire, it will naturally become wedged in place.

You can wrap as much or as little as you like. I didn't want it to be a heavy mass of wire, but I also didn't want any huge spaces. As you go, it's important to wrap over and under from time to time, so that the mesh of wire stays more or less on one plane. 

You don't need to be slavish about this; you just need to remember to wrap over and under once in a while. Another thing to remember: pay attention to your pin back, or it will end up getting overwrapped, and will become useless. Luckily, I only did this once.

 I didn't want a lot of crystals on this particular brooch, so I only added a few for a headdress. 

When I was fairly happy with it, I gently pushed the wires around a bit so that the gaps were pleasing to me, then pressed the entire thing gently between my fingers to compress the wire "fabric" and make it neater.

To finish, I added a dangly crystal at the elephant's forehead, and a trio of dangling crystals at its ear. I will also need to pay more attention to the pin back before wearing this, filing it to a finer point and smoothing off any burrs.

I'm quite pleased with the final elephant. It took me just under two hours from start to finish, and will take another fifteen minutes or so to file down the point of the pin and get rid of any small burrs that might remain. It looks nicer in real life than in these photos, but it's still a bit crazy. Then again, that's exactly the kind of thing that suits me.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although the intelligence of elephants is well known, there is growing evidence to suggest that they also have advanced problem-solving skills. 

At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the seven-year-old Asian elephant Kandula has apparently learned how to get at his favourite treat, even when it is well out of reach. 

In August 2011, researchers dangled a piece of fruit just out of reach over the elephant's enclosure. As seen in this video, after briefly studying the problem, Kandula devised a clever solution. Pushing over a wooden cube that had been left in his enclosure, Kandula placed it under the fruit, climbed on top, and snatched the sweet treat. 

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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