Thursday, July 5, 2012

My first forays into chainmaille

I have always been fascinated by chainmaille - all those little rings woven together to make armor and jewelry.  How did they figure out what to do?  There are so many different types of weaves and so many applications.  It's mind-boggling.  Click the above link to read the Wikipedia entry about it.

All I knew as a girl entranced by the Renaissance Faire, Robin Hood, and things medieval (yes, I know that's vague and all encompassing, but my blog posts get too long for me to delve into more detail) was that there are many, many little rings that somehow are joined together and that it was pretty.

I picked up a few pieces at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, including a headdress that I wore in my first wedding back in 1995:

I loved this dress

You can't see it all that well here.  It cascaded down my hair in the back.  It was heavy, but I loved it.  And since we had a Renaissance wedding, it was perfect.

Jump forward 17 years (zoom - divorce - zoom - changing jobs - zoom - second marriage - zoom - move to Milwaukee - zoom - quit crappy job - zoom - jewelry business).  Whew!  A lot happened in 17 years, didn't it?  Anyway - now I'm friends with people who make chainmaille jewelry and have even acquired a book (Classic Chain Mail Jewelry by Sue Ripsch).  I now am ready to try my hand at making my own chainmaille.

Cindy and Sue saw my pliers and were mortified.  "You can't use THOSE!" they said practically in unison.  (I really don't remember how it went - I'm taking poetic license here.)

My pliers are wonderful Craftsman needlenose pliers that my mother and stepfather gave me eons ago when I first started making jewelry.  They fit my hand perfectly and are very comfortable.  I get nervous when I don't know where they are, and just holding them in my hands relaxes me.  Well, that might be going a bit far, but those of you with a favorite tool know what I'm talking about.

My poor, scorned pliers

"Whyever not?" I inquired.

"They have TEETH!"
My, what big teeth you have!

"Yeah, that makes sure that things don't slip!"

"Yeah, but that also makes nicks in jump rings!"

They had me there.  I've noticed that I've been getting nicks in rings, crimp beads, and other things.

But before I bought new pliers I wanted to know if I would even LIKE to do chainmaille.  Cindy came to the rescue (she usually does).  At the Loose Bead Society Spring Retreat this March she had a demo of making Mobius rings, and she gave kits for two pairs of earrings.  So I tried it.  Not with my pliers.  Sue ripped my poor Craftsmans out of my hand (well, not really, but it's more dramatic this way, isn't it?) and lent me two pairs, one for each side of the ring.  That way I wouldn't hurt my fingers trying to hold and twist the rings.

A few rings went flying and were retrieved, but finally I did it:

Cindy gave us each one pair of sterling silver earring wires to go with the kits.  I have problems wearing earrings - my holes puff up and itch within a few minutes.  I hadn't tried sterling silver yet, though, so....  HOURS LATER, still no itching!  Yay!  I danced a jig (well, not really - please don't picture me dancing a jig), and I have been getting more sterling silver earring wires so I can finally wear earrings!  It's very exciting.  Mom has few problems with earrings since her chemotherapy, but I thought that was a bit drastic for me to attempt just so I could look fashionable.  But really, a jewelry maker who can't wear what she makes?  Ridiculous!  But now I can!  (Can you tell I'm excited?)

Over the next few months I purchased a few more pairs of pliers - a pair of chain-nose pliers from Fire Mountain Gems and a pair of BeadSmith bent-nose pliers from Rings 'n Things at a bead show here in Milwaukee.  These pliers are well made, but they were cheap, which was the main thing I was looking for.  Not the cheapest, but by no means $50-$60 Lindstroms.  Sue has Lindstroms and likes them, but they're way too much of an investment for someone who doesn't even know if she likes chainmaille or not.

My two new babies (bent-nose on the left, chain-nose on the right)

Before I had a chance to use them, the Loose Bead Society's Community Service committee helped at a Girl Scouts event so the girls could get their jewelry badge.  Sue led each of the events and asked us to bring our pliers.  One of the projects was an easy chainmaille bracelet.  Easy?  Not really.  The pattern was easy enough, but the girls had problems getting the rings closed so other rings didn't slip through.  Hell, I had problems with that myself.  :)  Eventually we all got our pieces done, and I really like the resulting bracelet:

It's light, colorful, dainty, delicate, and shiny (which is the most important thing).  The rings are thinner than what are used for normal chainmaille.

Shortly after this event Steve and I were at Cindy's for a game night.  We do this regularly, and Settlers of Catan has become the main game we play.  Before we left I suddenly remembered that she sells jump rings (here's her Etsy page - if you don't see exactly what you need, send her a message and ask if she has it) and that I have new pliers and that I want to try chainmaille.  So I asked to buy some rings.  I didn't know what size, how many, or anything.  I knew "silver" and that's it.  She knew better than to ask me about aspect ratio or any of that stuff.  She asked what I wanted to make.  "A bracelet."  "Um... okay.  Here."  She gave me two bags of rings, and I borrowed money from Steve to pay for them.  (I leave my purse at home if he's driving and I don't need it.)

The next Thursday (this would be 6/28/2012 if you're keeping track), I sat down with my new pliers, my Classic Chain Mail Jewelry book, and my rings.  I knew that my friend Judy had a bracelet made with the Byzantine weave.  I didn't want to copy her, so I looked at what else was in the book.

Persian.  That looks interesting.  It says "Intermediate".  Phooey!  I'm a bright girl.  I can follow directions.  It says to use 19 gauge 5.0mm rings.  I have 18 gauge (which is just a little thicker).  Well, that shouldn't be a problem, right?  Shrug.  Only one way to find out!

Simoon "helped" me

After over an hour of reading, studying, twisting open, twisting closed, wrenching, taking apart, putting together again, and finally calling Steve to help (he's better at spatial reasoning than I am), I had only this to show for my work:

What a jumbled mess!

The green thing is a twist tie which is supposed to help me know where the starting end is.  It sort of looks right, but not really.  I couldn't get the next rings to go where they're supposed to, and I got tired of messing with it.

As I was working I discovered a number of things to be true:

  1. The thickness of the rings probably does make a difference.  I knew this, but there's nothing like having it stare you in the face.  In the book, the rings look farther apart than mine did.  That must be what the problem is - I need thinner rings.
  2. Toothless pliers can still mar rings if you wrench on them hard enough.
  3. Medieval people were geniuses.  Not just those who figured out how to do the weaves but also those who actually did them.  I was expecting a few geniuses - the ones who developed the weaves - but I bet it was the common person who intricately wove the rings into shirts, hoods, and jewelry.  They didn't have good pliers like we have now.  How on earth did they do it?
  4. I needed to find a beginner pattern.  It galled me to admit it.  Steve thinks that the "Intermediate" is referring to the ability to decipher what's going on from a two-dimensional picture.  That may be true, but I'm maintaining that it was the rings that did me in.
  5. When I scroll up and down fast enough, I see "Toothless Medieval people".
So I flipped through the book and found the Box Chain weave.  It's sinuous (according to the book) and it looked like good, solid chainmaille.  Okay - here I go!

By George, I think she's got it!

After a short time, I had an inch long piece that looked remarkably similar to the picture!  It helps that the author refers to the rings that are on the top and bottom of the above picture that are slanted toward the green twist tie as "bunny ears".  That drove it home that I was working on a beginner project.

But considering that I still had a few problems - the rings reflect the light too well, and it was hard to tell what was what after a while - it was good I was working on a beginner piece.  I finished it the next day with zero rings to spare!  Well, one ring to spare, but it went flying and is somewhere on my floor.  I can't find it.

Here's the finished bracelet:

Sinuous, indeed!

I've worn it a number of times and really like it.  It's a bit bulkier than I usually wear, but I'm getting used to it.  I've gotten a few compliments on it (apart from Steve - he has to tell me he likes it, doesn't he?), and that helps.

So, do I want to dive into making chainmaille to sell?  No, I don't think so.  Cindy and Sue do that, and they're much better at it than I am.  My hands were aching from constantly holding the pliers.  They're bigger than my beloved Craftsmans and are still a little stiff in their newness.  I hear that should get better, but it's still something to consider.  Also, I would need to make a considerable investment in purchasing rings and spend a lot of time figuring out what I'm doing so I could have pieces to sell.

At this point I'm going to stick to beads and polymer clay and reserve chainmaille for making pieces for myself.

Don't worry - I'm not going to abandon my new pliers.  There are still many things I can do with them!


  1. Fun blog post, Traci! Saw you in the recent Bead and Button mag! I know someone famous! Yay, you! Kat

  2. Love your jewelry and hillarious writing :)

    1. Thank you, Kageleg! You're so sweet to say! I love the knitting basket cake on your blog - is she 33?

    2. Yes, she is 33 now, and thank you :)

  3. I agree! Chainmaille is amazing!!! I got sucked in after taking Diane Miller's class and was thus spoiled by her Argentium Sterling rings which are mega-expensive! I need to buy some rings from the lovely Ms. Cindy too as I bought the Sue Ripsch book the week it came out and would love to make some of those projects! I agree with you though; for now, any chainmaille project I do is reserved for my own wear. That is unless I get a specific request from someone to do it for them.