A Look Into Chainmaille History
First things first, let’s take a look at the use of the word chainmaille. It’s origins are commonly pinned to the French ‘maille’ and the Latin ‘macula’ meaning mesh. In modern use, it’s referred to as chainmaille and chainmail, along with their derivatives maille and mail. Personally, I see both chainmaille and chainmail as valid spellings of the word, but I typically use the chainmaille variation.
What Is It?
Chainmaille is often defined as a mesh fabric which is made from metal rings. Often credited with the Celts for it’s invention, chainmaille dates back to before 5th century. The use for this mesh fabric spread over the centuries among many different cultures. From the Roman Empire and into the Dark Ages, chainmaille had been a common armor used all over Europe; even down into what we now call the Middle East, and all the way north into Viking culture. It’s popularity traveled even to the far east where the Japanese developed their own styles of chainmaille armor.
Variations in Development
The flexibility and nature of chainmaille fabric means it’s vulnerable to blunt weapons. Though an effective defense against cutting weapons from piercing the skin. There are three main categories for chainmaille weaves: European, Persian, and Japanese.
European chainmaille, likely created by the Celts around 400 B.C.E., developed from initially sewing wrought iron rings edge to edge into leather armor to reinforce the armor. Soon, it was realized there was more flexibility and strength when interlinking the rings directly to one another. Early on, rows alternated between soldered rings and riveted rings. After the 14th century, all rings were riveted. This was adopted by the Romans to make their own armor.
One of the most common flat chainmaille weaves is the 4 in 1 European. Other weaves in this family have been developed based on similar principals, such as Byzantine. Byzantine chainmaille is often credited as being invented in Italy. This design is still very commonly seen today in Italian jewelry design (as well as around the world).
Japanese chainmaille is one of the oldest forms. Flat box structures and hexagonal grid patterns are common characteristics of this weave. The rings are typically smaller than the ones used with European chainmaille, and often lacquered to prevent rust when being sewn together with cloth or leather.
Persian is a family of chainmaille which is difficult to find historical support for in the Persian empire. The suspicion is that this is a modern family, and named to suit the intricately beautiful patterns. Examples include chain weaves such as the spiral, double helix and its variations, 4 in half persian, 6 in 1 full persian, among others. Again, these are most likely modern designs.
Around the 15th century, we see a decrease in the use of chainmaille largely due to the rising popularity of gunpowder and the changing face of warfare.
Modern Adaptations Into the 21st Century
Chainmaille has adapted in the 21st century as a component of stab-resistant body armor, cut-resistant gloves for butchers and woodworkers, and shark-resistant wet suits for defense against shark bites. Uses extend into jewelry design, purses, dice bags, and accessories including bikini tops and ties.