Chainmail is also called chain mail or chain maille, (maille), French deriving from the Latin word macula, which means mesh or net). It is defined as the practice of linking rings to create patterns, or “sheets” of flexible metal for the purpose of armor or decoration.
There is some evidence ring mail was first worn by mounted Scythian warriors from southern Russia and later adopted by the Celts and Romans. In the Middle Ages, chain maille (mesh) was used for protection for knights and other warriors when fighting with swords. The finer the chain maille (mesh), the more expensive and time consuming to produce; thus, only worn by royalty.
As time went by, and more smiths began producing it, chain maille (mesh) began to be used by members of the fighting classes. By 1586 it became part of the common soldier’s equipment, and by 1618, it was commonly found on arquebusiers (early muzzle-loaded firearms used from the 15th century through the 17th century).
Chain maille (mesh) was also made and used outside of Europe. By AD 1000, smiths in Japan began making chain maille. Known as “kasuri,” it consisted of oval rings connected with round rings. The rings were often lacquered to prevent rust before being sewn onto a backing of cloth or leather. Chain maille (mesh) was used in Japan until the 17th Century. It was also used in parts of Africa, the Middle East and India until the 20th Century.
The European chain maille (mesh) (four-in-one pattern) is the most commonly seen flat chain maille (mesh) weave. In the four-in-one pattern the weave begins with four rings linked through one central one and the weave is continued by adding a center ring and two end rings to the preceding one. This weave lies flat to the skin giving it the appearance of a sheet.
European chain maille (mesh), was likely created by the Celts around 400 B.C.E. and developed from initially sewing wrought iron rings edge to edge into leather armor to reinforce it. It was soon realized that more flexibility and strength could be obtained by linking the rings directly to one another in interlocking fashions. When the Romans arrived, they adopted the practice into their own armor.
Other weaves have been developed through history based on similar principals, such as the Byzantine. Byzantine pattern chain maille (mesh) believed to have been invented in Italy, is one of the most durable and elegant weaves created.
Chain maille (mesh) making was mostly a hand operation all the way up until the middle of the 17th century when the first chain maille (mesh) machine was invented in France in 1750, by Jacques de Vaucanson. The machine was used to make u-shaped wire for mesh chain. By 1782, a machine for the sole purpose of making mesh chain was built.
Other machines started appearing in England in the early 1800’s, by the 1830s, chain maille (mesh) machines were in high production. Germans were making fine chains while the English were making ball chains and other heavier styles. By 1870, mesh making was very popular all over Europe.
Americans focused on making mesh high-speed machines. In 1893, high-speed chain machines were exhibited at the Chicago World Exposition. However, a German by the name of Kollmar took this technology back to Germany and in short order made Pforzheim the center of chain making in the world.
After the popularization of mechanical chain makers in the late 1800s, chain jewelry found a widespread audience. Jewelry makers creating chain maille (mesh) realized that the same methods and patterns could be used to create jewelry.
Today, mesh is used for protective clothing for butchers and shark divers, costume armor in movies, fashion and jewelry. You may have seen maille on runways and in stores in the form of shoes, dresses, tops and handbags. Aside from its aforementioned use in the fashion world, chain maille (mesh) can be used for industrial, architectural and scientific applications as well.