Part 48 - Q&A IV: This time, it’s personal!
by Lord Thomas the Black


Q&A IV: This time, it’s personal!

            Welcome back to another edition of “Blackmaille”!

            This Q&A article marks four years I’ve been writing these articles for your education and enjoyment. It’s been a long, strange trip[1], too! Every time I think the well’s run dry, and I can’t come up with anything more to write about, someone asks me a question, or I see an online debate, or a new discovery is made, and all my free time goes out the window as I research and write another article on it.

            Over the last four years of “Blackmaille”, and the ten years I’ve done demos at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I’ve noticed I keep getting a lot of the same questions. So, I thought I’d use this month’s Q&A to address some of them.

            And so, without further ado…

Where would you get your wire in the Middle Ages?

            This was the best question I got at last year’s Renfest, and it came up often enough that it sent me to Cedric the Blacksmith for more information.

            There were two main ways to make wire in the Middle Ages. The first was to hammer out a long, thin wire from a lump of iron, sort of like rolling Play-Doh, but with metal. The second way was to hammer out a sheet of iron, cut a thin strip off of the end, and pull that strip through a draw-gauge until it was the size they needed.

            This would all be done by the blacksmith, who would keep a stock of wire on hand in various sizes, to be sold by weight. When a mailler needed more wire, he’d go to the blacksmith and say (for example), “I need 10 stone of 16 gauge wire.”

Which weave is the strongest?

            I usually get this from people looking over my demo boards (which have around 20 pattern samples glued to them). Fact is, they’re all about the same. The only historical patterns on my boards are the Half-Persian 4-in-1, Euro 4-in-1, Euro 6-in-1, and the two Japanese weaves. All the rest are modern developments, and all are butted. Butted maille is only as strong as its rings, regardless of the pattern in which it’s configured.

Why do the Japanese patterns look different from the others?

            The short answer is: Japan is a different culture from Europe. Japan was isolated from European traders for centuries, mostly by their own choice. Unlike in Europe, where maille was invented (most likely) by the Celts, then spread elsewhere by the Roman Empire, Japan existed in a vacuum. Their maille likely developed the way it did because of the unique Japanese aesthetic towards armor and weapons, and the lack of European influence on anything. Truth be told, like armorers in Europe, their Japanese counterparts were reluctant to write down “how-to” manuals, so we may never really know why Japanese maille was made they way it was.

How do you have the patience for this?

            I like to tell people that the key to having the patience to make maille (especially riveted) is to have a really boring real-life job. I’m a file clerk for a Federal accounting agency, so after eight hours of that, maille is exciting!

What’s in the mug?

            No kidding: I got asked this four or five times a day at Renfest last year. They’re referring to the large, lidded, wooden tankard that I always have nearby. I don’t know why that mug holds such fascination for people, but ok. To answer the question, it’s Mountain Dew ™. “Livewire”, if you need details.

Do you sleep in that tent?

            What? Are you kidding? What’s with people’s fascination with things they can’t see? Part of our demo at Renfest (and a few other places) is my 10’x10’ red-and-yellow Viking A-frame tent. At fest, we use it to store our demo boxes in, and as a “backstage” area for getting dressed, or just to get away from the crowds for a while. I don’t sleep in it at Renfest, but at other events I might, depending on whether or not we have Roise’s Bedouin tent.

Why do you do this?

            I’ve been interested (some would say “obsessed”) with the Middle Ages since I was a kid. Nowadays, we have so many conveniences that it’s hard to envision what life was like without them. When I make maille the way it was done 700 years ago, using period-style tools and materials, and getting results similar to what we see in museums, then for just a brief moment I feel like I can touch on what life was like back then. It brings me closer to a time I love. Doing demos lets me share that feeling with the public.

Where did you learn this?

            Many years ago, when I was a child, my family took me to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. In the SCA Dell was a man named Maldwyn, who was teaching people how to make maille. I was interested, but my family wanted to go do something else, so I couldn’t take his class. I did take one of his business cards, however, which had a watermark of a maille pattern on it. Later, I wrapped some florist wire around a pencil and began teaching myself the pattern from the card.

            Many years later, my interests turned back to maille, and in addition to the 4-in-1 I’d taught myself as a kid, I began learning other patterns and weaves from various websites (some of which are sadly no longer around).

            I still credit Maldwyn as the one who “taught” me. It’s an honor to know that he died knowing there’s still a mailler in the dell, and one who learned from him in the first place. Rest in Peace, Maldwyn.

Do you have a business card?

            Not anymore. I had some made up my first year at Renfest, when I wanted to make a business out of this. Since then, I’ve come to enjoy it too much. If I had to pay the bills with this stuff, then it becomes a pain-in-the-butt JOB, and I’d come to resent getting up in the morning to do it. As it is, my job pays for my mailling, and I look forward to spending a few hours in the shop after work every day.

Can I try that on?

            This wouldn't normally have made the list, but on Columbus Day (when they bus out the schoolkids to the renfest), I must have gotten this question at least 40 times an hour. They're asking about the maille coifs (head armor) that we have on display. The answer is: we'd rather you didn't, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it's a health issue. There's no telling what creepy-crawlies some people have on them, or whether or not they can be spread like this, but we're not taking any chances. Second, in the middle ages, warriors would wear an arming cap underneath the maille, not only to protect themselves from the force of impact, but also to keep their hair from getting caught in the maille. We don't have an arming cap you can borrow (see first reason). Finally, it wouldn't fit you anyway, since it wasn't made for your head. Because of the "Chinese finger trap" nature of maille, this means once you get it on, you may find it extremely difficult to get it off again. We had at least one person a day just put the coif on without even asking, and yes, they got stuck. Every time.

            Well that wraps up another annual Q & A article. As usual, if you have any questions of your own you'd like to see answered here, or if you just want to send us comments, hate mail, or fan mail (we love fan mail), send it all to us at: 

                                                c/o Tom Beckett
                                                13628 Belmead Ave
, MO 64030

Or you can email me at:

            Thanks for joining us for another month! Stay tuned next month, when "Blackmaille" sets off on a three-month journey to the Holy Land. That's right, "Blackmaille" is going on crusade! See you then!

[1] Sorry, Jerry Garcia!


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