Making Mail Armour

Like the section of hoplite armour, this section provides advice on making armour, along with some general discussion of the armour type.


I have heard many pedants correct people who say "chainmail", by saying that mail is the correct term for this kind of armour, which is made up of many linked rings of metal. There is a period of the past sometimes referred to as the "chainmail" period, because, in Europe at least, this was the type of armour worn by knights and soldiers. When a knight of the period (which lasted from the late Roman to the later crusades, about a thousand years) asked for his mail, he meant his armour, as these were synonymous. Today, however, it is possible to be confused between one type of mail and another. Some people use terms like scalemail, and even worse, platemail, so as I see it, the term chainmail is acceptable, since it is unambiguous.

What does it look like?

In close-up, it looks like this. Here we see part of the sleeve of a Moghul example of European-pattern mail armour. Note that every link is joined by a rivet.

Is it any good, then?

Well, given that I've just said that it was used for a thousand years to the exclusion of other armour types, and given further that it was used in the iron age, and as late as this century in some parts of the world, I'd say that it must be pretty good. People are not entirely stupid. Chainmail is very labour-consuming to make, and people do not go to all this trouble, for so long, if what they were labouring to produce was of little use. In truth, chainmail is very good indeed.

First, it can be bought off-the-peg. A single mail shirt will fit a wide variety of people. It has a figure-hugging quality which means that an army can be equipped without every man needing to be measured by tailors, and father can lend son his armour. This, when one thinks of the expense of armour, and the logistics of big campaigns involving thousands on men, is a very big advantage of mail over other types of armour.

Second, it is well-ventilated. The gaps in the mail allow free passage of air and sweat. Mail also acts as a sort of heat-sink, which keeps you cool in summer, as it soaks up your body heat, and cold in the winter (so wear something warm underneath). It will heat up in direct strong sun, but this is avoided by wearing something over the top of it. Unlike other sorts of armour, it is easy to wear things both under and over chainmail. That man you can see out of your window now, just across the street, might be wearing mail, and you'd never know.

It is quiet. True, where it hangs loose, able to flap about, it makes a bit of noise, but if it is worn with clothing over it, preventing over-much beflapment, it is near enough silent.

It is comfortable. If the rings are small enough, then the body cannot feel the individual links, and the coat generates a nicely-dispersed load on the body. It does not dig in as the edge of plates can. Mail was worn by crusaders and others all day. I have worn mail for as much as three days at a time with no ill effects.

It is self-cleaning. The rings, free to rotate and rub against each other, clean each other. When mail gets rusty, the easiest cure is to wear it for a while. True, your clothes might get orange stains, but it won't be long before the mail gleams again. Well-used mail is silvery with its own polishing.

It is beautiful. When you hold a piece of it in your hand, the eye sees an intricate and regular pattern of whirling curves, and the hand feels a piece of solid quicksilver. It has a way of flowing about which makes a little patch of mail far superior to Greek worry-beads or the like, as a fiddle-thing.

It is flexible. A piece of mail, properly made, with roundish-section wire links, will not just flex, but actually fold and fold again onto itself. It does not restrict the wearer's movements one tiny bit. I remember reading a book when I was grass height to a knee-hopper, in which the author assured me that Vikings fought with straight arms, because they wore mail sleeves. What fools get published.

It stops you from dying. I mention this one last, but it is important. A sword or axe will not cut through mail. True, a strong thrust from spear or arrow might burst some links and pierce the armour, but only after a lot of the energy from the thrust has been absorbed. If arrows went through mail as though it weren't there, as some claim, then why did people who used bows or faced bow-using foes, continue to prefer mail over other types of armour for a millennium? Many tests have been done which show that a bow can pierce mail. However, these are carried out against a piece of mail stretched out flat on a flat solid surface, often without any padding underneath, and the arrow, often of armour-piercing kind, is shot at it at close range, to hit perfectly perpendicular to the armour. Under these circumstances, an arrow will pierce. In a real battle, many wounds from arrows are caused by arrows falling from the sky, at an angle, at long range, hitting a flesh-covered moving man. Under those circumstances, mail will keep an arrow out. Even at closer range, men would often survive being shot several times. There are accounts of crusaders looking like pin cushions, after many arrows had pierced their mail, but then got caught in the padding worn underneath. The mail had done its job.

One drawback I can think of is that mail can hang heavily from the shoulders, if the garment is very long, such as a hauberk, which is like a chainmail dressing gown. The solutions to this include riding a horse, and wearing a military belt, which was a wide and very stiff belt, stiffened with metal strips. The mail would hang not just from the shoulders, but also from the military belt.

Will making some mail armour make me happy?

Well, these people seem to be happy in their mail.

On the left we see how your friends and family will be affected by trying on your mail. On the right we see the dangers to avoid. I'm afraid that the rest of the kit is not so authentic, as this photo' was taken at a live action role play event.

smiling girl in mail Lloyd, happy with his mail
Birthday girl treated to mail

Emma here seems delighted to be in mail. A slinky, but rather heavy, evening dress. All girls in Jesmond wear mail on their twenty-first birthday. A fine tradition.

It all sounds top. How do I make some?

Well, this page is getting a bit long, so I think that it is time to divide the making stage into a few sections. Click on the following sections in the correct order to win a fictitious prize:

Materials and equipment ▼

Materials end equipment

While I have enough source material to tell you how to go about making a piece of riveted mail armour, I am not going to tell you that. I shall assume that you are going to make butted mail. While it is true that most period mail was riveted, some wasn't, so you can silence your critics with this fact. The main reason that I am going to concentrate on butted mail, is that it takes at least four times as long to make riveted mail, and since it takes blinking ages to make mail of any kind, and since these days we all have e-mails to catch up on, and television programmes to watch, the number of people out there making riveted mail has dwindled to near zero.

To make mail, you will need:


Making mail takes a lot of this. My mail byrnie is made from 6mm diameter links. Each link took me about 15 seconds to link to the others, that's four a minute, around 240 an hour, assuming no hesitation for checking the pattern, and nothing going wrong. My byrnie has in the region of 30,000 links, so if you were able to link at this speed, it would take you 125 hours. Life isn't like that, and you must spend some while working out the pattern, relinking mistakes, researching, rubbing your calluses, and with all this taken into account I'd say that 200 hours is more accurate. So, if you did an hour every night without exception, it would still take you most of a year. I'm not trying to put you off. I'm just trying to let you know what you might be letting yourself in for.

Of course, you could save time by making a smaller garment, making a particularly simple garment, and most effective of all, using bigger links. The bigger your links are, the fewer you will need. One man I know who made riveted mail, estimated that it took him up to two minutes to do each link. Period mail was not made by individuals, but by teams. In addition to time, I could have listed patience and stupidity. To make a little patch of mail might only take you an hour or two, and it is a very nice thing to have, serving well as a key-ring fob, or as a superior alternative to Greek worry beads, for demonstrating what the armour was like for educational purposes, or just as a conversation piece.


For most linking, two pairs of decent quality blunt-nosed pliers will be quite adequate. If you use very unusually small links, then you may need some needle-nosed pliers, and if you use massive links, then you may get on better with adjustable spanners (that's "monkey wrenches" to you Yanks).


There are three main methods of getting links:

  • Use split-ring washers. A split-ring washer is a piece of good-quality springy steel, designed for a purpose quite other than making mail. From the right kind of hardware shop, it is possible to order these by the thousand or by weight. The advantage of washers is that they are the easiest type of link to get hold of. Disadvantages include: they tend to be rather square in cross-section. Those that are very square are no good (the mail will not flex properly), while those that are a bit rounded are still less good than links made from round-section wire; the proportions of the washers does not match the ideal proportions in all sizes - for instance I found some very nice 6mm washers, which were of the right proportion, but when I ordered some 12mm diameter washers, these proved to be far too chunky.
  • Make your own. Get some wire, wrap it around a rod to make a spiral, then cut the spiral up into links. I used a lathe to wrap the wire around a steel rod, then transferred the spring-like coil to a piece of wooden dowel. I then put the dowel in a vice, and sawed off a few links at a time from one end. This is a slow process. Quicker is to use a stout pair of clippers to clip the links off the coil, but this will not give you links with nice flat ends which butt together nicely, but will instead give you links with squashed ends and burrs which will make the garment very scratchy to wear, and a fair bit less strong. If you use galvanised wire, then your armour will not rust, but I would recommend ungalvanised, because it is more authentic, looks better, and if you care for your mail, rust should not be a problem. Also, if you plan to brown your links (see below), then you may find that the galvanising layer flakes off.
  • Get a factory to make you some. This is the best solution, though it involves some trouble. My father, who has links to the metallurgical industries, helped me here, when he found a factory near Birmingham which makes springs. They already had the machines capable of wrapping wire into long tight coils, and cutting these coils into washer-like links. I ordered enough links for seven suits, since the more I ordered, the cheaper the links were per thousand. I sold six suits' worth of mail in next to no time (though it was a risk), for one and one and a sixth times the cost of the links, and so ended up with a free suit of mail (minus labour). For no extra cost, the factory "browned" the links for me (see below).

Whichever way you pick for getting hold of links, be sure to test a small number first before you commit to many thousands of them.

A pattern

You should have some idea of what you are going to make. To make a garment, you could make the pattern up as you go along, but for the best tailored fit, some plan is best. Look at my garment pattern section for help with this, but to understand it all, you will first need to understand linking patterns (see linking patterns section below).


It can be well-worth the trouble getting your links "browned". This process, so-called because it makes steel go slightly brown, involves putting metal in an oven for a bit, and heating it up, and then letting it cool at just the right rate. The effect of this is to relax the stresses in the metal. If you don't do this, then you may find that when you open a link, which has been made by coiling wire, the wire takes the opportunity to release some of its internal stresses, and when you twist the link closed again, there is an annoying gap between the ends of the wire, because the wire of the link has straightened out slightly. If your links have such internal stresses in them, and you brown them, then they will come out with over-lapping ends, which may alarm you. Fear not. When you open the link and close it again, you will find that the ends of the link now butt up against each other without a gap, and the closing of the link happens with a satisfying click as the ends snap into place. Some links will benefit from browning, other won't. You will have to find out if yours will yourself.

image: unbrowned links

Here we see unbrowned links, shown in profile, and end-on. On the left is the link before it has been opened, and on the right the result of opening it, and then closing it again. Whereas the link appears to butt perfectly before the linking process, once the link is made, a gap appears. It is possible to close this gap, but it takes a lot of force applied with the pliers, and you risk breaking the link.

image: browned links

Here are browned links. When they come out of the oven and have cooled, they have ends which overlap, but when one opens such a link and then closes it again, the effect of the browning and of the opening and closing cancel out, and the link butts together exactly.

Hide ▲
Basic technique ▼

Mail Armour: Basic Technique

I shall assume that you are right handed. Many people have developed their own ways of making mail, but from what I've seen, what follows below is more efficient than most. Some people open all their links first, then link them and close them, but this involves putting them down and then picking them up again, which strikes me as wasteful of movement. This is the way I did it:

  1. Take up a pair of pliers in your left hand. If one of your pairs of pliers is stiffer than the other, make this the stiffer of the two.
  2. Pick up a link in your right hand, and place it in the jaws of the pliers in your left hand.
  3. Pick up the other, perhaps floppier, pair of pliers in your right hand, grip the other side of the break in the link and use both pairs of pliers to twist the link open.
  4. Put down pliers in right hand, keeping open link in pliers in left hand.
  5. With the link still in the pliers, link it onto the mass of the mail you have already made.
  6. Pick up other pliers in right hand again, and close the link in place using both pliers.

So far as I can tell, any other way involves a greater number of actions per link.

Hide ▲
Linking patterns ▼

Linking patterns

If you expect to get anywhere in the mail-making world, then you will need to know the basic linking pattern. Know first that this is the "European pattern", and that there are several "oriental patterns" which I'll not talk about here.

Take one link and close it to form a ring.

one link

Link two links into that one ring.

three links

Now link the two new links to each other with another link. You now have four links, each linked to two others.

four links

Now expand the chain in the same direction with three new links. You could do this over and over again to make a very long chain, but I'll just show this much.

seven links

Now the tricky bit. The diagrams here show the chain you have made, but they do not show you how it flops about, and how the rings are free to change alignment. Lay the chain down and get it into the shape as shown with seven links (above), then study this diagram which shows you how to expand in the other direction.

twelve links

Once you have built up a decent number of rows and columns, then the patch of mail you have made will start to behave itself when you lay it down, and the links will fall into line, but while the patch is small, the links are able to get themselves into quite a mess.

You now know how to start, and how to build up a patch of mail. Make a patch of just a hundred links or so, and keep it in your trouser pocket. After a few days of wearing those trousers, the patch will be polished (unless it is galvanised) into a beautiful silver shiny thing with which to impress all your friends.

European pattern involves every link in the centre of a piece of mail's being linked to four others. Those at the edges link to just two others. You could use this pattern to build an entire garment, but that garment would have to be composed entirely of rectangular shapes linked together. For a nice tailored fit, you will need to know how to expand and contract the mail.

Hold your patch of mail up by two corners. Let it hang from those. Now rotate the patch ninety degrees and hang it again. You will notice a difference. One way, it hangs as an open sheet; the other, it hangs quite differently, with the bottom free edge of the patch much shorter than the top edge which you are holding out taut. Get familiar with the fact that mail has a "grain" to it. When the bottom edge is shorter, and the lower part of the patch is a dense mass of metal, then the grain is running vertically; when the bottom edge is the same length, and the mail hangs with big gaps in it, the grain runs horizontally. In the last of the diagrams above, showing twelve links, the grain is running horizontally.

Often you will see mail reconstructed wrongly, with the grain of the mail running across the torso of a standing man. People often get this wrong because they like to see the mail hang open because they think it looks nice, and because this way, one can make a mail shirt with fewer links. This is the wrong way, because it is better to have a shirt which hugs the figure. With the grain running vertically, as it should, the shirt will contract onto the body of any man wearing the shirt, forming a dense mass of rings, giving him greater protection, and spreading its load over a wider area. With the grain horizontal, the links are sparser, and the mail hangs as a sheet of dead weight from the shoulders. The right way, and blows skid off the shirt; the wrong way and they may catch on the raised parts of the pattern. The right way, the shirt expands to fit over the wearer's clothing worn underneath the shirt; the wrong way, and the mail hangs with no ability to expand sideways.

To make a nice tailored shirt of mail, you will need to put in "expansions" and "contractions". These will give you subtle control over the shape of the garment, and the result will be more comfortable, better looking, and a lot more satisfying.

I shall now discuss expansions and contractions of the grain. Most expansions and contractions are of this sort, which is lucky, as they are much easier to do than those which go against the grain.

mail expansion pattern

Above we see the grain of the mail running vertically down the page. On the left, we see that one link, shown solid black, links not to two other links, as a normal edge link would, but to just one other link. On the right, we see that the mail maker has added the next row of links, linking each to two links as normal. The result is an "expansion" with the grain. Two columns of links have become three.

mail contraction pattern

Here I have rotated the diagram deliberately, so that you will have to spot that the grain runs the other way, across the page. This is a contraction, and is the reverse of what we have already seen. On the left, we see that one edge link, shown black, links to three, not two, of the edge links in the next row. On the right, we see that it is possible to carry on the rest of the pattern as normal, and three columns have become two. Peasy.

Below you see an area of expansion in my byrnie. On the lower image, for even greater clarity, I have coloured the rings that link to five rather than the normal four in red.

Now things get a little trickier...

mail hole contraction

Here we see the grain running horizontally. By linking the two black links in the top part of the picture, we can contract against the grain, from five rows to three. This is called a "hole" contraction, because it leaves a bit of a gap, but only a tiny one, in that two rings are left linked to three others each.

There is another type of contraction which I have used, and this is called the "knot" contraction, and it goes against the grain, without leaving a gap. This, however, is fiendishly difficult to describe and illustrate. I have used four of these in my byrnie, and they took me hours to do. Since you asked very nicely, I have photographed one (below right). You don't need to know how to do one of these contractions in order to make a shirt. The diagram which goes at least part way towards showing you how to go about it. I had a little more to go on than this diagram when I tried to do knot contractions, and still they proved very challenging. I ended up colouring five links with overhead-projector pens, to make the pattern clearer as I linked. Even once I'd done the first two, I still made mistakes, and had to take them apart again. All said, avoid them unless you like a challenge for its own sake.

mail knot contraction pattern

Thanks for reading this far. Now, if you visit the garment pattern sections, you'll know what I mean when I talk of such things as grain, contraction, knot contraction, hole contraction and European pattern.

Hide ▲
Mail shirt - basics ▼

Mail shirt (byrnie) - basics

When people get interested in mail, they generally want to make a byrnie first, which is like a mail T-shirt. What follows is a set of instructions and suggestions for making a byrnie. Once you have understood this, then you will be able to apply the same techniques to making other garments.

I have studied three patterns for a byrnie. The odd thing about these, is that they are all different, and yet they are all derived from the same period byrnie. Shirt O 1858 in the Wallace Collection, London, is a very good example of a mail shirt. An article I acquired some years ago ("Further research into the construction of mail garments" by E. Martin Burgess, in Antiquaries Journal) has photographs of it, and the photograph has the expansions and contractions marked on it. Another article on mail shirt patterns by Paul de Gorey gives us information on a pattern derived from shirt 920 of the Wallace Collection. I corresponded for some while with the arms and armour curator of the Wallace Collection, David Edge, and went in one day to look at shirt A2 of the collection. I handled the shirt in cotton-gloved hands, and made notes on the pattern.

It turns out that the shirt was called O 1858 when it was mistakenly catalogued with the oriental collection, but when it was proven to be of European origin (surviving European mail is very rare), it was given the number 920. When the Wallace Collection was renumbered, some years later, it was called A2. All three numbers, and all three patterns, therefore, are of the same shirt, which is German, made sometime around 1435 A.D. When I made my shirt, I was working from the Paul de Gorey pattern. I'll start with his pattern, and work from there.

Here we see the pattern I started with. The numbers are the number of contractions or expansions. You see that the shirt comes in at the waist and out at the hips. The groups of contractions, marked as triangles, involve one contraction in every fourth row. If you see a triangle with no number in it, that's because it is part of the same contraction the other side of the shirt. The sleeves narrow from the armpit with hole contractions.

Note also that whether something is a "contraction" or an "expansion" depends on your starting point. If you start from the lower edge, then you contract to come in to the waist, but working from the shoulders downwards you would call the same part of the pattern an expansion.

One important thing to notice is that the back of the shirt is eighteen columns wider than the front. Either side of the back are contractions of nine each. The main effect of this is to bring the arm-holes from the sides of the shirt, to the front. Human arms do not actually spring from the sides of the body, but they favour the front. If you think of your torso as rectangular in cross-section, then your arms grow from the front corners, not the middle of your sides. With an arm, you can reach across your front very easily, but you cannot reach across your back in the same way. Mail will expand freely until all the links are as far apart as they can go, at which point it stops stretching abruptly. If you put your arm holes on the sides of your shirt, as many people have learned the hard way, then when you bring your elbows together in front of your chest, the back of the shirt goes taut, halts your movement, and may even split.

A good way to start making a shirt is to make the contractions and expansions as separate pieces, then link them together, then fill in the gaps. You could, therefore, start with a rectangular patch of mail nine columns across, then contract this down to a point using the simple with-the-grain contractions, ending in a single ring. If you put in one contraction every fourth row, the triangular piece would be 33 rows long. Here, I am using 'columns' to mean the lines with the grain that run up and down the torso, and 'rows' to mean the lines of rings that run around the body horizontally, against the grain.

I ask you to bear a few things in mind:

First, the number of contractions and expansions you will need to make will depend on the size of the links you are using. The smaller the links you use, the more contractions you will need. The Wallace Collection shirt has rings 0.405" in diameter, according to the catalogue (that's 1.03 of your ghastly centimetres, metric fans). I used rings with an internal diameter of 6mm, and so I increased the number of expansions and contractions as I saw fit. I'm afraid that I have no magic formula for working out by how much to alter the numbers, but common sense and judgement worked for me. My shirt weighs about 23 pounds (10.5 kilos).

Next, remember that mail, when made properly, with the grain running down the torso, will contract to hug the figure of the wearer. As is falls inwards to hug the figure, it lengthens. The fatter you are, the higher a given shirt will sit on you. This is unlike a cloth shirt. I gave a man the same height as me my shirt to wear, and whereas it comes down to my crotch, it came down to between his hips and the top edge of his pelvis. He was a fair bit stouter than I. The Wallace Collection catalogue says that shirt A2 is 28" long. I measured it as 30.5". Perhaps this difference is due to my having stretched the mail out, whereas it might have been more scrunched up when the catalogue author measured it.

Also, bear in mind that the shirt is not symmetrical. I thought myself clever when I made my triangular bits of mail as mirror images of each other (in terms of the direction of slope (the "lie") of the rings, as well as the number of rings), thinking that one would be for the right side, and the other for the left. In fact, of course, I had it wrong in my head. The pattern of the mail is continuous across the shirt, and so the pieces of mail I made should have been identical, not mirror images. I solved this problem simply by making one side of my shirt one column wider than the other, and I defy anyone to tell me, without many minutes spent counting links, which side is the wider. I generally had even numbers of rows between my contractions and expansions. This meant that my triangular patches were symmetrical, apart from the lie of the rings. Shirt A2 has contractions every fourth row, which means three (an odd number) ordinary rows between each row with a contraction in it (i.e. rows with "idle" rings - those that link to fewer than four other rings). This means that there is no centre link to the patch, and so the contraction has to be offset slightly to one side or the other (to the right, on A2, as one looks at the front of the shirt, so to the wearer's left).

Time for another picture, now, after all that text.

upper front of shirt

Here we see a moderately close-up shot of my shirt. One of the contractions shows up nicely. It is the front part of one of the long contractions that comes over the shoulder from the back. I've marked it on the right with a pink line. Note also the "latten" rings, which are the copper-alloy rings which I have used to make the edges of the sleeves and neck hole look nicer.

Hide ▲
Mail shirt - latten rings and neck hole ▼

Latten rings and neck hole

"Latten" rings are made from a copper alloy, and are decorative. In old archaeological texts, the word bronze was used liberally to describe ancient metals which were not gold, but that sort of colour, and which were used to make pieces of arms and armour. To the surprise of many, modern analysis showed that a lot of ancient "bronze" turned out to be brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, not bronze, which is copper and tin. Much Roman armour is brass. It takes some amount of analysis to determine what type of metal a thing is made from, and so to be on the safe side, when archaeologists today write reports on these things, they use the clumsy term "copper alloy". Since I have a degree in archaeology, and have been initiated into the inner brotherhood, and wear my desert boots, hand-knit sweaters, and beard with pride, I too ought to use this term. According to my Oxford dictionary, "latten" refers to an alloy of copper, zinc, lead and tin. I think that these are listed in their order of the amount of each which goes into the whole. The first two would make brass. My guess is that the lead and tin were added to make the metal more maleable and ductile, that is, more easily wrought, since brass is not easy to work ( wrought is the old-fashioned irregular past participle of to work, still used by blacksmiths).

My byrnie has lines around the collar, arm holes, and lower edge in copper alloy rings. I used phosphor bronze split ring washers, bought through a hardware shop. These things are made for use in environments where corrosion is a particularly likely hazard. If you were to bolt some things together which were destined to be submerged in the sea, you might prefer these washers to steel ones. They were a bit more expensive than ordinary links, but if memory serves me well, I only needed about one thousand of them. They proved to be a lot weaker than the steel links, and I broke a few during linking.

I decided to stray from the Wallace Collection shirt's design, and instead of putting the latten rings around the very edge of the shirt, I put ordinary rings around the edge, and had a swathe of latten rings inset by a couple of rows. I thought it would look nicer. You decide. Some mail garments have very many latten rings worked into the pattern. I've seen some which form a heraldic device on the chest, others with a diamond pattern running throughout the whole garment. Most of the very fancy use of latten rings I have seen has been in suits of Near-Eastern origin, from Persia and the like. Anyway, my point is that one has a certain amount of licence with the use of these rings, but that to be utterly true to most European garments, the latten rings should be on the edges.

Shirt A2, our model, has three rows of latten rings around the arm holes, one row around the collar, and two around the bottom shirt edge (I would say "hem" but mail has no hems literally). Those that are round the arm holes, I noted (you will not find this in any publication), were against the grain. Given that a change of direction in the grain all the way around the ends of the arms involved a hiatus which is messy in comparison to continuous rows and columns of mail, this may seem odd, since the rings are there for decoration. I think, though, that I have the answer to why the makers of this shirt did this.

My shirt has latten rings which are linked with the grain, as seemed easier and logical. I have four latten rows at the ends of my sleeves, but to the casual glance, it looks as though I have three on one arm and four on the other. This is because the left and right sides of a chainmail shirt are not mirror-images of each other, as the grain on the torso continues straight across. For a shirt to be symmetrical, it would have to have a change of lie of the rings down the front - a sort of watershed. From one point of observation, one sees on my shirt the edges of rows 1 and 3 of the four rows latten, and the profiles of rows 2 and 4 on one sleeve; while one sees the profiles of rows 1 and 3, and the edges of rows 2 and 4 on the other sleeve. This gives the impression that one sleeve has more latten rows on it than the other. However, if the rows go against the grain, both sleeves will look more even. I realise that this paragraph may be a bit confusing, but I have good hope that you'll understand me.

I am suggesting that the makers of shirt A2 (perhaps having seen a shirt like mine) knew that unless they changed the grain of the latten rings on the sleeve ends, that the sleeves would look asymmetrical, and so they avoided this.

The makers have also altered the way they made the neck hole, for the benefit of the latten rings. On the sides of the neck hole, there are three rows of iron links against the grain. Thanks to the change of grain direction in the iron rings, the latten rings are able to make a smooth and even circuit of the neck. However, if the wearer's neck pressed sideways against these side of neck rows, it would be a fair bit less comfortable, since the neck would be against the edges of rings, which would be taut (as you know, mail gives in one direction in a different way from the other) and unyielding. The neck is ten inches across, however, so perhaps the neck never came close to the edge, so it wouldn't matter much.

Here we see a diagram which shows in yellow where the latten links go on shirt A2. The green areas either side of the neck are where the iron links of the shirt go against the grain.

I did the neck hole very tight-fitting on my shirt, and I have a break in the mail coming down from the centre of the front of the neck hole, which allows me to get my head through. I close this gap with a lace. I think that this is an authentic method, although many shirts seem to have such large head holes, that such a slit is hardly necessary, but such shirts may have been worn with a coif (mail balaclava helmet) which covered the gap. Some shirts certainly do have a long slit which would need closing somehow, and since my lace seems to work fine, I don't see why this might not have been common. Some shirts have a metal hook on one side of the slit at the top, which hooks across the gap.

Hide ▲
Mail shirt - armpits ▼


The armpits are the bit which foxes most people. I have seen more reconstructions of mail shirts which lack armpits than those which have them. If you watch the historically all-over-the-place film Braveheart carefully, you will see the king of England lift up his arm during one of the battles, to reveal that he has no mail under his armpit. It seems that even the armourer of so high and mighty a man balked at having a go at doing the armpits. At one live-action role-play event, I remember joking that people's under-arm sweat must be very corrosive indeed. In truth, you need not fear doing the armpits.

I have not seen two shirts which handle the armpits in the same way. This means that we have some licence in the way we do it.

Here we see the armpit as it is handled on shirt A2. We are looking up at the front of the shirt at a funny angle, and not all of the shirt is shown. The arm hole is shaded grey, and is arch-shaped rather than round or a slit. The base of the arch is created by a hiatus line of twelve links. At this line, the direction of the grain, represented by green lines, changes. The manner of linking between the two directions of grain seems to me to be pretty ad-hoc, following no formal pattern.

The red dots are hole contractions. Seven are in a line which goes from the front of the hiatus line, towards the sleeve end. This line has the effect of narrowing the sleeve towards it opening, and because it is not aligned with the centre of the hiatus line, but with its front, it also has the effect of bringing the sleeve further to the front of the body. Also, unnoticed by both de Gorey and Burgess, there is an isolated hole contraction between the other end of the hiatus and the sleeve end. This extra contraction is less easy to spot, since it is reversed (difficult to explain what I mean by "reversed" it acts to reduce the width of the sleeve in the same way, but it takes place where the lie of the rings is the other way around from the line of seven, so that the rings around the hole are seen with edges showing where the profiles are presented in the line of seven). This means that there are a total of eight contractions in each sleeve (Burgess spotted seven and de Gorey only six).

I agree: this is not the world's best diagram ever, but this is not an easy thing to illustrate. Here we see the grain pattern on my shirt, where there is no hiatus. This is simple, and it works fine. Start making the mail for the sleeve by extending the top of the shoulder from the neck hole. Keep trying the shirt on until the length of the sleeve is as long as you want it on its top side, then broaden this strip to cover the shoulder's front and back, and just keep going. It will all work out fine. Trust me. Eventually, the two directions of grain meet at a single point. Link as seems appropriate at that point. If in doubt, put in fewer links rather than more at this point, because you don't want a knot of mail under the arm.

Now, just to show you one of the many alternatives, here's a grain pattern for the armpits from a Moghul suit. The grain comes up the side of the torso, and then carries on under the arm towards the sleeve end, but this piece of mail diminishes to a point, forming a long triangle under the arm, with two long lines of hiatus. Complicating this arrangement, is the fact that the rings near the chest are very big and chunky, while those at the sleeve ends are smaller, and the change is fairly gradual. The links joining the two sides of the hiatus tend to be smaller than those either side of that join. This probably helps to keep things neat.

Now I hope that you will never feel the fear of doing armpits, and that you will make a fine pair of them, which will be the envy of all your mail-wearing friends. You may wonder what all the fuss was about, but don't let on: instead maintain to the last that it is very difficult to do armpits, which in fact it isn't.

Hide ▲
Mail shirt - complications ▼


There are many of these. I confess that much of what I have told you has been a simplification of the truth, but doing this website has taken me days, and I have to draw the line somewhere. The exact pattern of shirt A2 would take me absolutely ages to describe, and I have formed the opinion that much of it is unnecessary to know. There are many asymmetries in the shirt, which I suspect came about when the makers linking the various parts of the shirt together realised that they had gone wrong, so they fudged a few extra rows or contractions here and there to get things back in line.

For the moment, I'm just going to mention two things: one alteration to the pattern I started with, and the addition of knot contractions.

The pattern I showed you in the Mail shirt - basics section above, showed a contraction of four on the centre of the chest, bringing the shirt in for the waist. The actual shirt has two parallel pairs of contractions. On one row, a single link separates two contractions, and five normal rows are below that, then there is a second pair of contractions. The overall effect is that the shirt still contracts by four columns, but this happens in two bigger stages, rather than four lesser ones.

The second thing is a bit more complicated. There are knot contractions down the sides of shirt A2. These are not used in the armpit, perhaps for comfort. On the lower sides, though, comfort is little effected by the choice of against-the-grain contraction, and so the knot type has been preferred, as it is a bit stronger. A2 is not symmetrical in this regard, but my shirt is. I'll show you my shirt.

Here we see a mid-shot of the back of my shirt. The knot contractions are on the lower side. In the hope that this might help, I have marked the knot contractions with pink circles in this miniature version of the picture. Also in this miniature, I have picked out one visible line of expansions in the back with a pink line. With a green line, I have shown the edge of what you might mistake for some hiatus or line of contractions. In fact this is just the edge of an area where the links are hanging slack, and so this detail is of no consequence.

These knot contractions have the effect of making the front of the shirt shorter than the back. Shirt A2 has these. My guess is that the reason for them is to make the bottom edge of the shirt hang straight. A chap's backside tends to stick out a bit, so the mail at the back has to take a longer route towards the ground. Without these knot contractions, the side-view of the garment when worn would show that the bottom edge rose up towards the back. The shirt A2 has the knot contractions one above the other, but I decided to stagger them on the diagonal. I did this, thinking that this would create less of a kink in the line of latten rings around the bottom of the shirt. You can in the above photograph see a slight kink even so, and I'm not sure that my idea was a good one.

Hide ▲
Mail backed glove ▼

Mail-backed glove

Why don't I write "gauntlet"? Well, I suppose I could, but I wouldn't want to disappoint the folk who come to this page expecting to see a fancy gauntlet made of many plates of metal, and so I write "mail-backed glove" since this is undeniably an accurate description of what I have made.

Here you see the whole glove. The glove itself is a leather one I made, lined with fur, based on the pattern of a modern traditional man's glove. The mail on the back does not look very shiny. This is because I used galvanised wire. I was young then, and knew no better. The pattern of the mail is quite clear. Most of the glove is just simple European pattern. The fingers have no missing rows of links between them, but instead have rings which in a continuous sheet of mail, would have been linked together. There is a line of hiatus in the pattern at the base of the thumb, but I'll hope that you'll agree that this is not too messy.

A close-up of the mail, which illustrates the main point which I want to make about mail-backed gloves, which is relevant to plenty of other mail garments. The mail itself is not attached to the glove at all. Instead, lengths of leather thong have been threaded through the mail, and the thonging has been sewn to the glove. Be sure to leave slack in the thonging, where the glove will need to bend. I used ribbon-like thonging, with a flat surface through which I ould pass a needle and thread if I wanted to. This sort of thonging also lies flat, and has a finished upper surface, and I recommend it.

Hide ▲

Back to top