Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Elephant No. 346: Chain Mail

I was in a beading supply store last weekend and was inexplicably attracted to a display of coloured jump rings. Normally I hate working with jump rings, so it was probably the pretty colours that really attracted me.

I liked the rings enough that I thought I'd try chain maille for today's elephant. Knowing how many jump rings I'd have to open and close, however, it occurred to me that this may have been a very bad idea.

Chain mail—also called "maille", "chain maille" or simply "mail"—is usually used to produce a form of armour made up of multiple small metal rings that are chained together to form a sheet of mesh. The origins of the word "mail/maille" are not certain. The most likely derivation is from the French "maillier", meaning "to hammer". Although the more correct term for chain mail is simply "mail" or "maille", I've used "chain mail" throughout this post to avoid any confusion.

Closeup of modern aluminum chainmail for re-enactors.

The earliest known European-style chain mail dates from the third century B.C., discovered in the burials of Celtic chieftains in Slovakia and Romania. Likely inspired by earlier scale armour, chain mail is commonly believed to be a Celtic invention. From Europe, chain mail spread to North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Tibet, India, Japan and Korea.

Chain mail was introduced to the Middle East and Asia via the Romans. By the third century A.D. it was in use among the Sassanid Persians as a supplement to the scale armour already in use. Chain mail was also used for horses and heavy calvary. Asian chain mail was lighter than the European version, and sometimes even had prayer symbols stamped on the rings as an added form of divine protection.

Sculpture of Gallo-Roman soldier, ca. 3rd century A.D., known
as the Guerrier de Vachères for where it was found.
Collection of the Musée Calvet, Avignon, France
Photo: Fabrice Philibert-Caillat

From the Middle East, chain mail was adopted in Central Asia and India. It was not widely used by the Mongols, but became the armour of choice in India, often used with plate armour. This combination was common in India until well into the eighteenth century.

In the Ottoman Empire as well, chain mail with plate armour was widely used until the eighteenth century, particularly among the Janissaries and heavy cavalry. From there, it spread to North Africa, where it was adopted by the Sudanese and the Egyptians. Surprisingly, chain mail was still being produced in the Sudan in the early twentieth century.

Although used to a limited extent in China and Korea, chain mail was most widely embraced by the Japanese. In fact, the Japanese had more forms of chain mail than all the rest of the world put together—including hoods, gloves, jackets, vests, shin guards, thigh guards, shoulder guards, and even tabi (socks with divided toes).

Japanese kusari tabi (divided-toe-sock armour), ca. early 19th century. The mail is
sewn onto leather in this example.

The main advantage of chain mail was its ability to protect the wearer against slashing or stabbing by weapons such as swords, daggers and bayonets. A recent study at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England showed that it was in fact almost impossible for a conventional medieval weapon to penetrate chain mail.

The ability of chain mail to withstand an attack depends on a number of things: how the rings are linked, the material that is used, how tightly the rings are woven together, and the thickness of the rings themselves.

Even the best chain mail, however, could sometimes fail. A slashing blow by a sharp sword at a perpendicular angle could cut through the links, for example, and large weapons such as axes could smash right through. Some countries, such as India, developed slender weapons able to find their way through the links in chain mail, and others focused their fighting techniques on finding a way around the chain mail, hitting the opponent in places which weren't protected by the metal mesh.

The mail itself could also add to injury. Because of the mail's flexibility, if a soldier was bashed in a place covered by mail, the mail could at the very least bruise the wearer, and at the very worst cause serious cuts and fractures.

Despite the various drawbacks, chain mail was highly prized. It was time-consuming to produce, making it expensive to own. As a result, it was often looted from the bodies of fallen soldiers. As weaponry advanced, however, chain mail was often supplemented with plate armour, and had largely fallen out of favour by the sixteenth century.

Warriors in chain mail from the Bayeux Tapestry, A.D. 1070. Note the looters at the
bottom, including a man pulling a shield from a dead soldier, and another stripping
an opponent of his chain mail.
Collection of the Museum of Reading, England.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, chain mail reappeared as a material for bulletproof vests, although it wasn't terribly effective. Not only could bullets destroy the rings, but the rings also fractured on impact, making the injury worse. During this same period, British soldiers fighting in the First World War sometimes wore a fringe of chain mail on their helmets. Although this proved an effective defence against shrapnel, it was unpopular with soldiers, and was ultimately abandoned.

Today, chain mail has resurfaced yet again, this time for a wide range of uses. Modern high-tech chain mail is used in gloves for woodworkers, police and animal control officers. It is also used in wetsuits to protect against shark bites, and gloves and body armour for butchers. One of the more unusual uses of chain mail is a sort of Faraday Cage suit worn by electricians working with high voltage wires, and people playing with Tesla coils. Chain mail is also, of course, worn by many historical re-enactors.

Chain mail glove for woodworkers.

Chain mail also has decorative uses. It is often used for epaulettes on military uniforms, and in film costumes—where it is sometimes not metal at all but spray-painted yarn or plastic. It is also used in art applications such as jewellery, mixed-media work, sculpture and even chess sets. So popular is chain mail these days, that there are a number of interanational clubs and forums where chain mail artists and practitioners can share their work.

Bracelet produced with a "Japanese weave" chain mail technique, by Rebecca Mojica.

For today's elephant, I chose jump rings in two sizes: 8.5 mm and 6 mm. I had 100 of each, so hopefully that would be enough. These are copper with an enamel surface in a colour called "seafoam". It wasn't my first choice of colour, but there weren't many colours with both sizes available.

My first idea was to simply make an elephant shape using chain mail, which I could later use to make a brooch or something. Then I thought it might be interesting to make a chain mail head covering for an actual elephant. Obviously not a full-sized elephant—but at least something I could slip over a small elephant from my collection.

I decided to use one of the elephants generously given to me over the years. This one was a gift from my father, and measures about 10 cm (4 inches) in height.

Having never made a chain mail anything—not even a bracelet—I had no idea where to start. Should I measure first? Just link rings together and fit it to the elephant as I went? Since I hate measuring things, I decided on the latter method. My subject elephant is quite stationary and cooperative, so I figured I could just fit him as I went.

I loathe opening and closing jump rings when making jewellery, so some years ago I actually bought a little tool that fits on your finger like a ring. The idea is to place the jump ring in the slot and twist. I vaguely remembered using it once and not liking it, but I tried it again today. I didn't like it any better today. But that's just me. I ended up using my fingers and a small pair of flatnose jeweller's pliers.

Using the elephant armour in today's elephant lore as a model, I started with the top of the elephant's head.

I added a series of links down the trunk next, along with a few rings to stabilize the join between the topline and the trunk.

From this point on, I joined rings in any way I could. I saw that I was going to run out of the smaller rings fairly quickly, so I used the larger rings to fill up the space.

This was actually quite a complicated undertaking. The whole thing had a tendency to slip off the elephant's head, making it difficult to construct in situ. Worse, when I took it off and laid it flat, it was hard to keep track of where I was. Also, the elephant is not symmetrical, meaning that I couldn't necessarily do the same thing on each side.

Ultimately, I used a combination of flat work and fitting the piece directly on the elephant's head. I also used almost all 200 rings, which is rather surprising when you see how small the piece actually is. It isn't a work of chain mail art by any means, but at least it does stay on the elephant's head.

I didn't like chain mail all that much. It's fiddly and kind of tedious, and I didn't really see the point of it for someone like me. It also took me almost three hours for this little piece, so I think I'd rather just buy chain and link it together somehow. Some people create beautiful chain mail jewellery and armour, but it's definitely not for me.

On the other hand, should something invade my house and try to slash my elephant in the head, his headdress might protect him. A little.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although elephants are normally thought to have a virtually impregnable hide, there are certain spots that are very thin and sensitive. This made elephants quite vulnerable to an archer's arrow in earlier centuries. The arrow might not have killed an elephant, but it would definitely madden him enough to cause considerable chaos and destruction.

In Central and South Asia in particular, war elephants were accordingly outfitted with armour, including chain mail. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England, there is a stunning set of elephant armour made with panels of sheet iron, linked together with sections of chain mail. Produced around A.D. 1600, this highly decorated suit of armour includes hammered designs featuring elephants, peacocks, fish and lotus flowers.

Some of the iron panels are missing, revealing the cotton padding that was worn under the armour to ensure the elephant's comfort. A good thing, too: so heavy is the suit of armour that it takes three people to lift the headpiece alone. It is the only known suit of elephant armour in the world.

Suit of elephant armour, ca. A.D. 1600, with inset showing detail of plates and mail.
Collection of the Royal Armouries, Leeds, England
Photo: © Ferne Arfin

To Support Elephant Welfare


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. If you were to shorten the chain going down the trunk, just a bit, and attach a honking huge crystal/bead/wooden bead of some sort, then your Pachyderm could use it to defend himself with it, if need be?