Educator How-To: Be your own knight in shining armor with homemade chain maille

When people think of knights, they generally think of armor, too. The plate armor most associated with knights was actually a fairly recent invention. Armor started as quilted shirts and thick leather pieces to cover arms and legs (if you were fortunate enough to afford it!).

Chain maille was a pretty fantastic innovation for the time, but it had its drawbacks, too. It was heavy and cumbersome and only as strong as each individual link. Because the links were made of steel or iron, they rusted quite readily, and those rusty links were the proverbial “chinks in the armor.” They were points of weakness that might allow a sword point or arrow to penetrate. 

The job of armor maintenance was given to young boys that might otherwise be underfoot. To start, the armor was placed in a barrel of sand and sealed up. The boys would then roll the barrels back and forth across the yard and the sand would scour the blood and sweat and rust off the links. Even a well-maintained chain maille shirt would need repairs quite often and the color on even the best of days would be a dull dark gray.

Further innovations led to the plate armor that we know today, but even then, it wasn’t always so shining. Here is a suit of armor that belonged to Henry VIII. 

Youth Ed Armor 2Youth Ed Armor 1 

 

Beautiful? Yes. Well-crafted? Yes. Shining? Not so much.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that body armor like this was a strictly European invention.  Most cultures that engage in warfare have some sort of armor to counteract the weapons. Some of the armor is ceremonial, but more often than not, it is clever and particular to the local environment. 

The Maya and Aztec, for example, wore knee-length jackets of tightly-woven quilted cotton called ichcahuipilli. The jackets were soaked in salt water and then the water was allowed to evaporate. The salt left behind would crystalize between the quilted portions of the jacket, creating small, thick, sturdy plates of protection which were effective against arrows, atlatl darts, obsidian swords and batons.

Youth Ed Armor 3

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They didn’t have cotton in Micronesia, so on the islands of Kiribati, they used what they did have: coconuts. Helmets, leg coverings, shirts and chest protection were made from tightly-woven coconut fibers as protection against another natural resource: sharks (or more accurately, shark teeth). The teeth of the sharks were drilled in the roots and then attached to the base with bits from the veins of the coconut leaf or human hair. The shark-tooth swords were intended to disembowel an enemy or open a major artery so he would bleed out. Yikes!

Want in on all this exciting armor action? You’ve got two options!

Option 1: Bring your crew down to see Magna Carta before it leaves on August 17th.  You have three short weeks! If you want to bring a school group or day care, be sure to contact fieldtrips@hmns.org to get the school rate. You will also want to consider coming on a Friday mornings at around 11.

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Option 2: Can’t make it to us? Then try your hand at making your own armor. Sort of.  Here’s a pretty easy chain maille bracelet you can make at home. It won’t offer you much protection but it will allow you to practice your technique before trying something a little more complicated.

Materials:

-Jump rings or chain maille rings (The bigger they are, the less work for you.)
-The clasp of your choice or a piece of leather or ribbon to tie the bracelet ends together
-2 pairs of jewelers pliers (or needle-nosed pliers if you are in a pinch)
-A tape measure or piece of paper to measure your wrist

Procedure:

  1. Measure how long you want your bracelet to be using a tape measure (or even a piece of paper). The standard size for women is about 7 inches and the standard size for men is about 8.
  2. Open several of your jump rings. To open them, you DON’T want to pull them apart.  Instead you want to twist them open. If the individual rings start off as an “O” shape, you don’t want to make them into a wide-mouthed “C”. Instead, you want to slide the ends away from each other, one towards you and one away from you. Because of the way the rings are made, they naturally take that shape, so that should help you get started. If your rings lay flat when opened (rather than in a twisty shape), you will need to try again! Once you have a pile of open rings, things get a little trickier. You can keep up though. I believe in you.

    Youth Ed Armor 7

  3. The next step is to put four closed rings on an open ring and then slide the open ring back into the closed position. Then repeat this step over and over. You will need probably 10 of these 4-in-1 sets for a 7-inch bracelet.

    Youth Ed Armor 8Youth Ed Armor 9

  4. Once you have the 4-in-1 sets made, you will need to use your pliers to separate out two rings from the four. The set should hang from your pliers as two rings, with one ring in the middle and two more rings at the bottom. You are then going to feed an open ring through the top two rings. Shift your pliers around so that you are now holding onto that open ring.

    Youth Ed Armor 10Youth Ed Armor 11

  5. Using your other set of pliers, pick up two rings on another 4-in-1 set. Loop those two rings through the open ring (effectively creating a new 4-in-1 set) and then close the open ring. You should have created a small chain at this point. Great job!

    Youth Ed Armor 12

  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you have 4 or 5 small chains. I am doing 4, but I have pretty small wrists.

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  7. Getting close to being done! You will need to link these small chains in exactly the same way you did the sets. Take two rings from the top of one small chain and put them on an open ring with two rings from the top of another small chain.
  8. Now, repeat step seven with your longer chains!
  9. Finish up by adding a single jump ring to each end. This will let you tie the two ends together, or you can add a clasp to that last ring before you close it up. You’re done!

    Youth Ed Armor 14

How To: Make Terra Cotta Armor!

Check out the previous post The Clothes Make the Warrior to learn how to decipher the armor on the Terra Cotta Warriors now on display at HMNS. Then, try your hand at making your own!

Materials:
Large paper grocery sack
Scissors
Cardboard
Hole-punch
Brads
Tape
Paint (optional)

Procedure:
armor1. Cut 150 squares out of cardboard.  The squares should be 1.75 x 1.75 inches a piece.  You may cut one and use it as a template to trace the rest. 
2. Cut the paper bag into a tunic shape that can be slipped over the head.  You may have to experiment and find out what works best depending on the size of the child.
3. Cut out two rectangular pieces (you can use the left over pieces from making the tunic) and tape them to the shoulders.  These will be the guards. 
4. If you wish to paint your armor, you should do this prior to assembly.  I do not recommend painting the bag, but you can paint the square pieces.
5. Use the hole-punch to punch a hole in the top-middle of each square.
6. Starting at the top of your tunic, attach the squares one at a time by placing a brad through the pre-punched hole and then poking it through the bag.  Make sure to put the squares close together.
7. Continue this process until you have the front and back completely covered.  You may have to trim some of the squares to make them fit properly.
8. Next move onto the guards.  These are the rectangular pieces attached to the shoulders of the tunic.  Attach the squares to the guards in the same manner.  You may need a sharp object to start the holes in this area.  This should be done by an adult.
9. Slip the armor on your favorite child and have them stand sentinel!

Kneeling Archer_resized

Background:
Armor was made of small plates of leather, covered in lacquer to stiffen them.  On the top and bottom of each plate are double close-set-holes.  These plates were attached by knots of leather or thong.  Depending on the size of plates, a suit of armor could have up to 250 plates.  The smaller the size of the plates, the higher the rank of soldier.  The armor of higher ranking soldiers had more decorative straps and ribbons in a geometric pattern.  The armor opened up on the right side allowing it to be slid over the head.

Heavy infantry and low ranking soldier’s armor covered the front of the torso from shoulder to waist, curving in the front.  In the back, armor went from the shoulders to the lower back.  Attached at the shoulders were shoulder and upper guards.  To allow for movement, plates at the waist and shoulder guards were loosely sewn.  This armor would be made from larger leather plates and would have no straps or ribbons for decoration.

The Clothes Make the Warrior

kneeling archer close up cropped
An archer with a top knot haircut

It is said you can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear.  Clothing speaks to us, albeit quietly, but if you know how to “listen” you can glean loads of information.  Recently, I toured our Terra Cotta Warrior Exhibit with an expert on clothing styles. She told me about all of the Warriors and what these different styles “tell” us.

She first drew my attention to the different hairstyles of the warriors.  Three distinct styles can be seen; the top knot, the coil, and the flat braid.  In the Emperor’s army, your hairstyle would depend on your rank. The warrior would wear a top-knot, which is much like a bun; the higher the knot was worn on the head, the greater the number of kills made by that warrior. An officer’s hair would be braided flat.  Can you tell the warriors from the officers?


Chariot Driver_close up
Chariot driver with cap and chin strap

The headdress also speaks volumes about a soldier.  It tells you what military branch the individual belongs to and their status.  Warriors in the infantry wore a kerchief cap over their top-knot hairstyle.  A cavalryman wore a close-fitted cap with a chinstrap made from leather.  The charioteer wore a headdress made from metal and silk with a pointy top. A general might sport an elaborate headdress in the form of a double-tailed bird.  The pheasant-tailed cap of the general speaks of his bravery and skill on the battlefield.  Can you identify the different kinds of warriors by what they wear on their head?

Armored General_close up
A Terra Cotta general

When considering the clothing of a warrior, you just must also check out his shoes – the longer the toe on the shoe, the higher the status of the individual.  Most shoes were made with animal hide, stitched with flax thread.  Straw was used as padding.  How many different types of shoes can you identify in the exhibit?

No well-dressed warrior would be seen without his armor, right?  Well, not exactly.  Whether you wore armor or not depended on your job.  Armor was made from plates of leather, shellacked with lacquer to give them strength.  The size of the plate indicated your importance; the smaller the plate, the higher your rank.

I hope you come by to check out the Terra Cotta Warrior Exhibit before the opportunity passes you by and if you do, I hope the warriors “speak” to you in their own amazing way!

Make sure to come back next week and check out an activity on how to make your own armor!