During a temp assignment, an impromptu discussing of chainmaille came up. I was working with some graphic designers on a project that was rather repetitive for an 8-hour shift. When asked if it was tortuous to do, I replied, “No, I love chainmaille. I can literally sit for hours just adding one ring at a time.” One of the designers was shocked by this statement. It was obvious it found it intriguing, but it made me decide to share with you all why I love this craft.
I’m someone who loves hands-on learning opportunities. Big shock, I know. So when I was scrolling through different projects to try last year, I had looked over some medieval-oriented jewelry. Another period I’ve always been a bit interested in. Naturally, chainmaille is going to come up. I’ve known of it but never thought to truly research it. It originally began as a small craft on the side to it. But I liked it so much, I decided to make it for sale as well.
The Supplies You Need
Let me give you all a few basics with terminology before I move any further. First of all, you have jump rings. These are different that the split rings you see on a key ring. Jump rings are a metal ring cut open in only one spot. When closed, they form a perfect circle. You can get them in a variety of metals, but the most common in terms of chainmaille jewelry are aluminum, copper, and niobium. Sure, you can buy them in gold or sterling silver, but it’ll be for a pretty penny. These metals are cheaper for maillers to buy–either in wire coils to cut themselves or pre-cut rings bagged in bulk.
There are a number of tools necessary for mailling, but I will focus on a low-budget crafter’s supplies (i.e. mine). You’ll need pliers and if you can, a jump ring closer. Pliers are pretty self-explanatory, and there are a variety to find/use for a given project. Fewer people, at least to begin with, know about a ring closer. It looks like a ring with different size slots cut out around it. These slots are designed to slip the other side of an open ring into so you can close it with pliers in only one hand. I normally leave one on my pointer finger near the top so I can work faster.
Outside of that, you just need to know the weave you are working with, clasps/toggles to close the pieces of jewelry, and time. A weave is simply the design you are duplicating. Numerous weaves have existed for centuries and once you’re advanced enough you can create your own combining others you’ve learned. Charms, ring colors, etc. can further separate your work from the pack. Now if you choose to cut your own rings, there are a few more steps.
Cutting Your Own Rings
I’ve only done this a few times myself to get an idea of how it works. I want to say bravo to all who do this more regularly than myself. You have a few routes to go. You’ll need the wire in the gauge wanted–that meaning the thickness of a given ring. Contrary to what you would think, the higher the number of the gauge, the thinner the wire is. A ring mandrel of some sort is also necessary. I’ve bought sets of mandrels, but have seen other maillers use wooden dowels, pipes, etc. to make their own. Speaking of mandrels, maillers normally give ring sizes in mm or the A/R (aspect ratio). The aspect ratio involves the gauge of the wire and size of the inner measurement of the jump ring. You’ll also get the outer A/R.
What you do once you’ve settled on all this information is start making your coils. Regardless of your setup, you’ll be wrapped the wire tightly around the mandrel until you reach the end. Cut the excess off. Taking either wire cutters or a jeweler’s saw, you pull the finished coil off the mandrel and cut the coil into rings. This is another area in which you have to strategize a bit. My method is always to cut where the excess wire was so that I have the least amount of wasted wire (i.e. the small bit you always lose in a coil that cannot be made into another ring).
If you use a wire cutter, the cut will be rough and uneven. This means either you leave it as is or file it down a bit so the ends meet a bit better. If you use a jeweler’s saw, you’ll have smooth ends that will always meet evenly. Needless to say, most people prefer the latter. Either way, check each finished ring to see how it looks closed. If you’re using them for jewelry, this is the time to separate those that are nicked or close improperly. Customers do not want to see this and will look over their pieces closely. This is not the time to think, “that’s close enough”. Hopefully, that’s an unneeded reminder, but I’ll say it all the same.
I have some recommendations for the unused rings and or wasted wire. Keep the unused rings for practice with new weaves. You’re bound to make mistakes and this way you don’t ruin the usable materials. On that same note, use wore down pliers for this as well. As for the wasted wire, that’s only wasted in terms of jump rings for the given size you wanted. Depending on the length and condition of the wire, you could use it for a smaller mandrel or make your own closures. It takes some time and patience, but I like using as much of the wire as possible.
Hopefully, this has given you all some insight on chainmaille and why it interests me so much. You have to like repetition to do that. As you grow in experience, you’ll be able to work in sections and combine them to make pieces faster. You’ll learn the tricks of having an understanding of how many rings are needed for an average bracelet versus a necklace. Knowing the rings per inch will allow you to have your rings sorts and separated between the number of opened vs. closed rings so you can fly through a weave. Best of all, you’ll have mastered an art centuries old and contributed to keeping it alive.
Are you a mailler yourself? Considering starting it? Leave some feedback below and let me know your story!