Beginner's Guide to Mail
by Eric Slyter
So, you want to learn the craft of making mail, but don't know where to start. This article will serve as a primer for the "newbie" who is interested in learning the simplest form of mail- butted rings in the European style of 4-in-1. By "butted" I mean that the ends of the rings are simply "butted" up against one another, rather than closed via welding or riveting. Butted mail appears to be wholly inauthentic in Europe with the exception of the fragments of mail found in the Vendel-era Sutton Hoo ship-burial, now in the British Museum. Despite the obvious anachronism, the advantages of building butted mail are that the tools and materials are pretty inexpensive, and it can be done pretty much anywhere. This article will address the tools and techniques you need to get underway as quickly and cheaply as possible. If you want to make authentic riveted mail, you'll still need to go through all these basic steps before tackling such an undertaking. I strongly recommend moving on to riveted mail as soon as you have a grasp of how to go about the mail-making process and have built a good piece or two. (see also: An Introduction to the Skill of Making Armour, Riveted Mail Index)
Another thing this article does is give overviews of history and terminology, which should not be neglected. Doing your homework first will give you more insight as to what you're doing, so you can make informed decisions, ask informed questions, and get it right the first time. Remember, a lot of research goes into making a good piece of armour... and you do take pride in your work, don't you?
That being said...
Some Brief History About "Chainmail"The term "chainmail" is a relatively modern term derived from the historical "mail," which is itself derivative of the old Latin "macula", meaning "mesh" or "net". The term "chainmail" was coined in the Victorian era when the word "mail" was used as a generic term for any kind of armour, with the first word (in this case, "chain") designating the specific type. This led to other misnomers like "scalemail" and the most dreaded term, "platemail". "Mail" is a specific form of armour referring to a mesh of individual rings weaved together. "Scale" is a specific form of armour referring to metal scales affixed to a backing, and "plate", too, is a specific form of armour referring to the use of plates to create an armoured shell. While these and other forms of armour could (and often were) used in conjunction with one another, the terminology is not interchangeable. Treating them as such will usually have the effect of making the person using them look as though they got their armour knowledge from a role playing game manual. Not a desirable impression. (see also: Demystifying Chainmail and Ringmail)
Examples of mail have been excavated dating as far back as the mid-4th Century BC, and archaeological finds seem to indicate that Celtic civilization is responsible for having invented it (at least in Europe). These early examples haven't been examined in decades, and when they were, were probably not examined by archaeologists who were familiar with mail or even armour in general. For this reason, it cannot be conclusively stated at this time as to if the rings were riveted, welded, punched, or merely butted. Around the 1st Century AD, a combination of rows of riveted rings and solid rings appears to have been the favorite, as evidenced by verified Roman finds. It has not been clearly determined if this was a Roman improvement on the Celts' work, or if the Romans merely popularized the form. Nonetheless, after the 1st Century AD, the alternating solid ring/riveted ring construction appears to be the favorite right up until the end of the 14th Century AD, after which mail of all-riveted construction appears almost exclusively. It's not known for sure why the conversion to all-riveted rings was made, but regardless, by this time, plate armour had gained favor over mail as the dominant form of armour.
The 4-in-1 weave is by far and away the predominant mail weave in Europe. Very nearly all mail that has been found in Western Europe, but for a couple not-quite-verified examples of European 6-in-1, has been of the 4-in-1 configuration. While any of the information in this article can technically be applied to 6-in-1/8-in-1/"King" weave, etc., there is probably very good reason why some of these weaves aren't proven to have existed, or to have survived in wide usage, in any form that has been proven historically. Their greater relative density, a result of the thicker weave, does not provide an advantage that smaller, solid/riveted 4-in-1 rings can't provide, and the 4-in-1 does not have the considerable weight and flexibility restrictions that the thicker weaves do. In short, you can make your mail out of whatever weave you want, but you should know what you're getting into, both historically and functionally, before doing so. There are other kinds of non-armour things you can build using other weaves, and many sites dedicated to these alternate weaves, but this article will be concerned with 4-in-1 for armour.
ToolsThe bare minimum tools and materials for making mail are:
Any kind of leather palm/fingered "work gloves" will do. You'll be dealing with wire that is building up a lot of potential energy when making your coils or springs, and you want your hands covered if it whips around. There is also the possibility that you could get your fingers too close to a spinning coil, and if you don't have that glove on, you'll be layed open in a most painful way when your skin gets pinched between the wires. You can get good gloves for as cheap as about $5 at hardware stores.
This is what you'll be making your rings out of. There are many kinds of metals to choose from, but for the beginner on a budget the best choice is probably going to be galvanized steel wire. It is a steel wire with a zinc coating, which makes it extremely resistant to rust. The shiny coating will turn a nice dark grey with time. It is easy to bend, and retains it's shape well… which makes it well-suited for mail rings. It is also inexpensive and easy to obtain. You can get short coils of it at hardware stores, but at about $5 per 100 ft. (which is a lot less wire than it sounds like), it's going to cost you more than if you buy in bulk. If you can find an industrial supplier or wire manufacturer in the Yellow Pages, you might get a 50 lb. coil for less than $1 per lb. Before you say, "Whoa, that's a lot of wire, I don't need that much," realize that mail-making is very addictive and that you probably won't want to stop after just one 25 lb. shirt. Plus,all your friends will want some too, once they see what you can do. The two most typical gauges (thicknesses) used in butted mail are 16 (thinner) and 14 (thicker). (see also: Wire and Sheet Metal Sizes)
A steel rod
The rod, more commonly known as a dowel, is what you'll be coiling your wire on. 3' lengths are recommended and easy to come by at most hardware stores, and common diameters for mail are 1/4", 5/16", and 3/8". You definitely want the smooth unthreaded variety of dowel. There is usually a little tag attached with the dowel's dimensions, as well as it's degree of heat treatment. If you can get one that is "Hardened", you will be well off. Next recommended is "Cold Rolled". The last one you want is "Hot Rolled", which is the softest of all. The issue on the hardness is durability-- if you're going to be doing a lot of mail, especially on a wire winding jig, you want the dowel to hold up for as long as possible. Dowels are usually under $4.
Adjustable locking pliers
Also known as "vice grips", these will be used for spinning your wire as well as, possibly, weaving your mail. 5" or 6" versions will usually fit the hand well, and adjust to be large enough to accommodate a 3/8" dowel or small enough for a 16 gauge mail ring. They are available at almost any hardware store, for around $7.
Bent-nosed needlenose pliers
These will be used for weaving your rings. Normal needlenose pliers can work fine, too, but I've found that you can get in-between the other rings better, when weaving, with the bent-nosed variety. Again, 5" or 6" versions will work great, and can be found at hardware stores, for about $5.
A plain old pair of pliers will be a sufficient tool for mail weaving. There is a technique listed later in this article using the adjustable locking pliers, but if that technique doesn't work for you, standard pliers, along with your needlenose pliers, will be a necessity.
You will need something to cut your rings with. There are a variety of cutters to choose from, with strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has their own preference on what works best for them, so you may need to try a few different cutters to find what works best for you. Some of the hand cutters will cut more rings if you modify the jaws to fit further inside the coil of wire you'll be cutting the rings from. These are listed in order of cheapest to most expensive.
End nippers, side cutters
The cuts these two kinds of cutters leave is a pinch cut, which resembles this:
This isn't a particularly nice kind of cut, as it's hard to make the ends meet cleanly. These cutters are possibly the hardest on your hands, and after cutting hundreds (or thousands) of rings you may have second thoughts about using them. They are probably the cheapest cutters you'll find, though, and are available at hardware stores. They're around $5.
This cutter, due to it's scissor-like operation, leaves cuts which resemble this:
This is a good cut which is easy to butt together. While I know of many people who swear by aviation snips, I've found them to be too hard on my hands and that the rings distort too much during cutting (especially thicker wire). They are widely available at hardware stores in a variety of configurations for about $12 or more.
Bolt cutters are hit and miss. If you get a good pair, you can get real nice cuts which resemble this:
However, if you get a bad pair, the cuts will be just as bad as with end nippers or side cutters. The only advantage then is the fact that bolt cutters are easy on the hands. 14" bolt cutters are a good size to deal with. Be sure to take a short wire coil with you to test them out in the store before buying! The bottom jaw may need a bit of grinding to fit within the coil, but that will have to wait until you get home. They cost about $15.
Score 'n' twist
Yet another method for removing rings from the coil is to mark them about 1/3 of the way through with one of the previously listed handcutters, then use a plier to twist the ring free. I've used this myself in the past and it does produce nice ends to the rings. The downside is that it is very time consuming.
The die grinder with a cut-off disk produces arguably clean, flush cuts. There are a number of disadvantages to this method, however. You will go through cut-off disks at an alarming rate for the number of rings being cut, which gets expensive. It's very time consuming to cut rings cleanly with this method, and if they're not cleanly cut, they're pretty much useless. The cutting is noisy and smelly, and sparks (and sometimes blazing hot rings) will shoot all over the place. Eye protection, when using a this tool, is a necessity. If the rings get too hot while cutting, the ends will blacken. It's also easy to forget that the cut rings and coil are hot, so burning yourself is a risk. Lastly, the process of cutting removes physical material from the ring itself, resulting in a ring that is smaller than the desired size and slightly out-of-round. Using a die grinder to cut rings is great in theory, but not very good in practice. However, it is a very handy tool to have around for other uses, including modifying the jaws of the above hand-cutters so you can cut more rings from the coil at a time. If you can afford one, get one. They're about $40.
The jeweler's saw probably tops them all in terms of cleanliness of cuts. You pay for it in the amount of time spent doing it. Jeweler's saws can be obtained at hobby supply stores or jewelry supply shops, at around $30 for the saw and blades... and you'll need a lot of blades.
(see also: Finding Supplies for Armour, Hand Tools on the Cheap- A Scrounger's Guide)
What to buildNow that you've got an idea of the tools and materials, how much they cost and where to look for them, the first thing to do is decide what you want to build. Most people want to build themselves a "hauberk", really only knowing that this is a term for a chain shirt. There are actually 3 different kinds of shirt, generically speaking, that one can choose to build. A full shirt may not be the best thing to start with, but rather a long-term goal. First, consider a coif.
A coif is an excellent project to begin with. They don't take that long to do, so the reward is more immediate than a full shirt of chain. You will also learn some basic skills while doing so, such as expanding and contracting rows, and how to get things to fit and look right. You will also find out if you have a taste for doing mail before starting that full hauberk. Information on early coifs seems to be scarce, but there is evidence that they could be seen as early as the 3rd C. They were definitely in use by the 11th C. through the 14th C. It is fairly well-known that coifs, previously integral on hauberks from at least the 11th C., start to be seen as separate items from hauberks by the last 1/4 of the 13th C. (see also: Standard Coif Instructional)
If you simply must make a chain shirt to start off with...
This is essentially a t-shirt of mail. It has half sleeves and comes down to about the hips, and is considered a typical chain shirt in the "Dark Ages" (about 500AD-1000AD). It is sometimes considered a Norse style of shirt, even though lorica hamata, or Roman chain shirts, are basically the same thing (pre-dating the byrnie by several centuries).
The byrnie, after about the 10th C., started getting longer to cover the legs, and the sleeves started getting longer as well. By the 11th and 12th Cs, the bottom hem was about mid-thigh, with the sleeves being about 3/4 length. By the 13th C., it was a knee-length shirt with full-length sleeves, with mail mittens (mufflers) attached. This is the one most closely associated with the term hauberk, though it's developmental line can be considered the same. From about the 11th C., it also had an integral coif, which remained until nearly the end of the 13th C. It also continually had a split, from the groin to the knee, usually in the front and back, for horseriding. Some sources indicate that sometimes a "footman's split", being a slit up either side, was used, but I've personally found the "horseman's split" to be superior for movement even when on foot! This stands to reason, considering that, when fighting on foot, a shield was usually protecting the front, and it would seem foolish to leave the sides of one's legs vulnerable by having the armour split there. Nonetheless, the "footman's split" has some historical documentation, though such for it ends in the 12th C.
The final incarnation of the mail shirt was the haubergeon. After the 13th C., the use of the newly developed of plate armour began to eclipse mail, so mail began covering less and less of the body. The bottom hem came back up to mid-thigh, and the sleeves receded back to 3/4 length. The split was not always used, depending on the length of the shirt. The shirt continued to shrink as more plate pieces covered the areas the mail used to cover, until, with the 15th C., mail was worn by knights only as a skirt attached under the plate armour, and in the armpits or other areas where the plate armour couldn't completely cover.
The finishing touch to that full-sleeved hauberk, mufflers were mail mittens that were attached on the ends of the sleeves. The mail was presumably stitched to all-encompassing leather mittens, with the mail covering the backs of the hands and fingers. There was a slit in the wrist or palm which allowed extraction of the hands from within. This is an uncommon item to make or have these days, but does add that much more of an authentic look.
This is an advanced skill. A chausse is a mail legging that covers from the mid-thigh all the way down to cover the foot. It is usually attached to a gamboised cuisse, and attached to the footwear (see why this is an advanced skill?). Chausses are seen from at least the 11th C. (without feet), through the 13th and 14th C. (with feet), and were either long pieces of mail which were laced to the outside of the leg, or "hose", encompassing the leg all the way around. Tricky to make and wear, it's not surprising that they're most often on mounted knights (see also: Mail Chausse Construction)
In the 15th and 16th Centuries, mail remained on the field as an important defense among those who could not afford better armour (and in many cases, served as the only defense). The neck, shoulders, and upper body of soldiers and mercenaries of this time period are often depicted being protected by an abbreviated cape usually referred to as a "mantle." These often had a standing collar comprised of smaller rings (it was believed that these were genuine examples of 6-in-1, but that has been disproven in at least one noteworthy example). The simplest construction need only resemble the bottom half of a coif, but more ambitious efforts duplicate the denser weave of the collar and triangular seams of the historical originals. Mantles generally open in the back via a split.
Don't get overly wrapped up in the idea of a "pattern" or template to build from. Basic garments like shirts and coifs are simple in their essential construction. For tailoring, the simplest way is to keep trying on your mail when it is under construction to ensure that it fits to your satisfaction, and tailor it accordingly as you go. Because mail has the capability to expand and collapse, a good fit is easy to attain. After doing it enough, experience will kick in and you'll understand the craft well enough to wing it with a wider margin of error. If building for someone else, do frequent fittings. If that person is not local, find an acquaintance who is approximately the same size (compare their measurements) and allot for variances. Common butted mail is so simple to build in most respects that there is no need to stress over how to make it fit someone, and experience makes it much easier.
What to doThe next thing is to decide what ring size and wire gauge you want to make your rings out of. There are many combinations, and your decision could be motivated by what it is that you want the mail for. Small rings and thick wire mean a sturdy mail that is also very heavy and time consuming to construct. Large rings and thin wire mean a weaker mail that is light weight and less time consuming to construct.
If your intention is to build a costume which you don't want to spend weeks or months on, which will look nice and won't weigh a ton, then a combination of 16 gauge wire with a 3/8" dowel will probably suit you. A finished hauberk will weigh in at around 20 lbs.
If your intention is to build an armour for re-enactment combat and you don't mind spending extra time to do it well, don't mind a little more weight and want a nicer look, then a combination of 16 gauge wire with a 5/16" dowel will probably suit you. If the combat form is full-contact sport combat, though, you may find yourself repairing your mail-- a lot. A finished hauberk with these specs will weigh about 30 lbs. This is what I make most of my mail out of. The next advanced step is to go down one ring size, which is 16 gauge wire with a 1/4" dowel, but you'll be taking on considerably more weight, with a finished hauberk weighing in at around 40 lbs.
If your intention is to build an armour for re-enactment combat which you don't want to spend forever on, don't mind some weight and it doesn't have to look excellent, then a combination of 14 gauge wire with a 3/8" dowel will probably suit you. This is the standard mail armour for sport combat, and a finished hauberk will probably weigh about 45 lbs.
There are, of course, other combinations, but most of them create mail that is too weak or aesthetically poor, or so ridiculously heavy that it's unmanageable. Don't fool yourself into thinking, "I can wear a 75 lb. mail shirt, no problem," because 75 lbs. is a lot more than it looks like on paper. There is an upper limit to the amount of weight that the body can safely bear, and mail doesn't have the advantage of distributing over the body like a set of plate armour (or even modern army combat equipment). The worst part is actually building one of those things and then finding out that it's just too much weight to handle (don't ask me how I know).
Many weight and strength considerations can be conquered by building riveted mail instead of butted. Since the ends of the rings are attached to one another physically, rather than relying on the thickness of the metal to support their own weight, thinner wire can be used without sacrificing strength (in fact, improving strength!). I still recommend getting your feet wet with some butted mail construction before getting in over your head.
Getting Started!It's finally time to start doing something with the wire and tools. Here are the quick-n-easy steps:
1) Put on your leather gloves.
2) Cut some wire off of your spool, in about 6-8 foot lengths (eyeballing the length is fine):
3) Grab your dowel, and set the end of one of the lengths of wire up against the end of the dowel:
4) Adjust your locking pliers so they clamp down firmly over both the end of the dowel, and the end of the wire:
5) Seated and holding the clamped end of the dowel with a free hand, place the opposite end of the dowel between your feet, keeping it in place with your knees:
6) Holding the wire taught with your left hand, use your right hand to rotate the adjustable pliers clockwise. Your feet and knees should still be bracing the dowel, making this possible. It may be necessary to place a towel between your knees for padding and absorbing the friction:
7) Try to guide the wire with your left hand so that you produce a nice, even spring. If you get really good, and can eyeball it well, try to wind the spring so that the loops are equally distant apart, about the thickness of the wire you are using:
8) Continue to rotate the dowel as quickly as possible until you run out of wire or space on the dowel:
9) Now, the tricky part. One thing to be very cautious about is the tension on the coil. You'll notice, as you spin it, the wire becomes harder to wind the longer you go. This is because the wire is resisting the coiling process. When you let go, the wire, while staying coiled on the dowel, will release all this bound up energy and whip around. If you, or any part of you is in the way when this happens, you will experience pain. You want to let it release this energy gently and gradually. A good way to do this is to keep tension on the wire yet to be spun with your leftt hand, and slowly start turning the adjustable pliers in the opposite direction you've been spinning with your right, until you feel no more tension on the wire in your left hand. Then it is safe to release the adjustable pliers, and slide the spring off of the dowel:
10) Cut your spring, removing as many links as possible per cut without distorting the rings:
11) Now you have your own mail rings:
You will notice that, if you coiled the wire closely, you will have to take the time to "gap" the rings before being able to use them. That is the advantage of trying to spin the coil with the "loops" about one wire thickness apart, though that is a very tricky thing to attempt with this method. With Advanced Wire Spinning techniques, it's possible to spin 2 wires at the same time, which gives you pre-gapped rings when you cut them from the coil, which is obviously advantageous if you've spent any time at all "gapping" your rings manually.
Advanced Wire SpinningIf you plan on doing any serious amount of mail production (ie more than a couple shirts), you'll be better off investing in some more stuff. Even if you're own skill level is beyond it, we still recommend going back up and reading the basic wire spinning technique, as it will be referred back to in the text here.
Any kind of leather palm/fingered "work gloves" will do. You'll be dealing with wire that is moving much faster than before, and you don't want that to be moving against bare skin. There is also the possibility that you could get your fingers too close to a spinning coil, and if you don't have that glove on, you'll be layed open in a most painful way when your fingers get pinched between the wires. You can get good gloves for as cheap as about $5 at hardware stores.
If you've been working with a Dremel, then you already have these (right???). You'll need them again when working with some of the tools and techniques listed here. Look in hardware stores for these, at varying prices.
Earplugs are always a good idea when operating machinery of any kind, as the high-pitched, high-decibel sounds can have an immediate and lasting damage on your hearing. Inexpensive foam ones can be found at hardware stores.
You'll need a couple extra standard or needlenose pliers to help out with some of the things detailed here.
Wire winding jig
This is a simple lathe-like device which supports the rod and enables wire to be spun more easily. It is usually made out of wood and is not terribly difficult to construct if you have the tools or can get someone who has tools to help you. This model has a hand crank, which is nothing more than a portion of your dowel which has been kinked using a vice and hammer. This would be used with your left hand while keeping tension on the wire with your right hand. You will need to drill a small hole through your dowel, on the side opposite the crank, into which you will feed the end of your length of wire into. The hole can be drilled with your Dremel or a power drill (remember your safety glasses), and the coil will need to be cut from the hole in order to remove it from the dowel. You're still pretty much limited to spinning 1 wire, unless you have someone turn the crank for you. Gloves and safety glasses are necessary when building it. Gloves are recommended when spinning wire with it. You will need something stable upon which to clamp the jig to keep it in place. I use a 2nd hand chest of drawers filled with tools and supplies (the heaviest in the bottom drawer). A wire winding jig will vary in cost, depending on if you know someone who has tools and/or scrap wood, or what kind of wood you choose and how much it costs. Mine is made of plywood, particle board, and a 2x4 for extra support. All were scrap.
Variable speed power drill
Taking the basic concept of the wire winding jig, you can forego the hand crank altogether by simply obtaining a variable speed power drill and fitting it onto the end of the dowel that protrudes from the jig. You will now be able to spin wire at a much faster speed than previously, and you will be able to spin 2 wires at a time. Gloves are a necessity! "Variable speed" means that the harder you press the trigger, the faster it will go. You'll want that kind of sensitivity when spinning the wire. Other features to look for are reverse capability, and a lock switch so it can be compatible with a foot pedal. Unless you get a foot pedal, you will need an assistant to operate the drill for you. You'll also need access to a power outlet and a place that is tolerant of a bit of noise. Earplugs are a good idea when operating it. Variable speed power drills are obtainable from hardware stores for about $40 and up.
Variable speed foot pedal
This is a very useful piece of equipment. It allows you to operate your drill with only your foot, allowing use of both hands for managing the wire being spun. You can go as fast or slow as you need to, and because you have a reversible drill, you can even go in reverse if you bungle your wire up (which happens all the time, especially with 2 wires at high speed). Gloves are a necessity! As noted previously, you'll need a drill with a switch that locks it in the "on" position. When in this position, the drill will only operate when the foot pedal is depressed. One necessity when using a foot pedal rather than an assistant running the drill is a way to keep the drill stationary. That is to say, you must have some means to prevent the drill from revolving itself as it meets increasing tension from the wire. This can be added to the wire winding jig fairly easily. Foot switches are not exactly cheap at about $80, but are very well worth the investment.
The greatest danger to using the power drill techniques is the issue of wire tension on the dowel. Like before, when you let go of the wire being spun, it will release all this bound up energy and whip around. There are a couple different ways to combat this.
1) If you're spinning 1 wire on a hand-cranked jig, and you're about to run out of wire with some dowel left, keep spinning until there is about 8" of wire left to be spun, then stop. Release the crank. It should spin freely as the wire releases it's tension. Grab one of the extra pairs of pliers mentioned previously, and clasp the jaws around the end of the wire. Continue spinning now, until the until the pliers are almost at the coil. There should be no more than about 1" of wire left. You should be able to release the end of the wire, cut it free from the dowel, and remove it. This same basic principle can be applied if you're spinning wire and run out of room on the dowel. Simply release the crank and the tension on the wire, cut the remaining wire off of the finished coil, etc.
2) If you're spinning 2 wires on a drill operated jig, and you're about to run out of wire with some dowel left, keep spinning until there is about 8" of wire left to be spun, then stop. Hold both wires in your right hand firmly. Use your left hand to grab one of those extra pliers mentioned previously, and clasp the jaws around the ends of both wires being held in your right hand. Then use your now freed right hand to grab the other of those extra pliers, and clasp the jaws around the end of the rightmost of the 2 wires. You should now be holding a wire end in each plier. Proceed to spin the wire, slowly, until the pliers are almost at the coil. There should be no more than about 1" of wire left. You can now release both pliers quickly, getting your hands out of the way, and let the wire tension "snap" out. It is much simpler when you run out of room on the dowel with wire left to spin... Simply stop spinning, hold the wires in your left hand, cut them free of the coil with your right as close to the coil as possible, and the tension will be released. Then just remove the coil from the dowel normally.
Assembling the MailNow that you've spun your wire and cut your coil into individual rings, it's time to assemble them. Basic 4-in-1 weaving instructions are here. It should be mentioned here that the usual configuration for most mail items (such as the body of a mail shirt) is for the rings to lay in this manner:
This allows the weave to contract and expand as its being worn, and makes tailoring a lot simpler. It is more defensively sound, as it allows the rings to collapse against one another and provide a tighter knit defense. It is also arguably the most historically accurate way to do it. There are effigies, illustrations and paintings that illustrate it going the opposite direction on occasion, but I regard these with skepticism because the tailoring and weave are sometimes extremely impractical, and so I usually chalk them up to stylization and artistic license in the representation of mail in these formats (much like the debunked "banded" mail). All in all, the above alignment will work best in most cases, and as you begin weaving the mail the practicality will probably be apparent.
Weaving TechniquesAlternate grips
I have found that I get the best results when I hold the plier in my right hand jaws-up, and the one in my left jaws-down. When weaving a ring, I hold the ring in my right hand plier's jaws, with the plier horizontal. I then grip the other side of the ring in my left hand plier, and use both wrists to twist the ends together. That is what has always felt natural to me, though I've seen it done with both pliers jaws-up. That seems really clumsy to me, but then my way seems clumsy to them as well. The pliers never leave my hands once I start weaving... I am able to hold the pliers in the palms of my hands by squeezing thumb towards the pinky, leaving the 3 middle fingers on each hand free to pick up rings and hold the project being worked on. This saves time. Beginners will usually have to lay their mail out flat in order to discern the pattern at first, but this should be avoided as soon as it is possible to do so.
Using adjustable locking pliers
After going on a massive weaving marathon one weekend a few years back, I discovered that my right wrist was so damaged and inflamed that for the next week and a half afterwards gripping anything, let alone weaving mail, was a painful challenge. With some experimentation, I've found a way around 90% of the wrist strain using adjustable locking pliers. Most of the strain on the wrists is in the process of gripping the ring tight enough for it to be weaved. The locking pliers remove most of the strain of gripping, since they latch onto the ring and grip it for you. Then it's just turning the wrists to do the rest. The trick is to use them in your right hand, jaws up, like a normal set of pliers. They need to be adjusted so that, when gripped, they can hold a ring firmly, but be able to snap off of the ring with minimal effort once it's done. This can all be done with your right hand, with some practice. Using the same method as detailed above regarding using the free fingers on each hand, I hold my place in the project with my left hand; pick up a ring with my right hand, and put it in it's place in the weave. I close the jaws of the locking plier by squeezing with my right hand until it clamps in place on the ring. Supporting the weight of the project with my right hand and pliers, I then use the left hand pliers to weave the ring as usual. I then use my pinky on my right hand to flip the lever in the grip and release the clamping action of the locking plier. The plier needs to be short enough for you to reach the lever with your pinky, so purchase your locking plier according to the appropriate size. This is a great way to save your wrists a great deal of strain, and make your weaving faster and more precise. It does take practice to master, though.
Your eyes will thank you if you get some reading glasses, magnifying at least +175x to +200x. You may feel silly wearing "granny glasses", but you'll not only save yourself long-term eye damage from the constant strain, but you'll save yourself short-term headaches-- literally. Weaving for hours on end can give you a migraine you wouldn't believe, but I've been relatively free of headaches since getting reading glasses. I personally favor the ones with low rims, since that way I can easily glance up at the TV while I'm weaving. They're available at pharmacies for about $15.
I've read a number of tutorials on so-called "speed" weaving and tried most (if not all) of them. By and large, the concept of "speed" weaving is a misnomer. Any technique in which you are closing one ring at a time doesn't have much over any other technique that closes one ring at a time. It is possible to increase speed by building separate smaller components, but you then lose speed by the time it takes to assemble them or connect components to a larger item. Because of this, I've found that building little clusters of 5 rings or shallow strips for subsequent assembly is very counterproductive. One thing I have had a good measure of success in is building long strips, 2 rows wide, 3 or 4 feet in length. I then add rings to these strips until they are 5 rows deep. The advantage of building large components like this is that you're not having to stop and tailor anything, nor connect smaller (even tiny) pieces to the whole. These long strips can then be simply added to an existing item, or broken into smaller components and added, making them very versatile when working on larger items like shirts. The disadvantage is, as mentioned before, that it takes more time to connect separate components. You also have to accomodate for any tailoring aspects on the main project before attempting to add these components. Despite this, I have still found it preferable to having 20 lbs. of mail heaped in your lap as you painstakingly connect 1 ring at a time to your project.
One advantage that "speed" weaving does give, if not directly in time gains, is psychological gain. Constructing smaller components will give a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Also, having a variety of ways to approach your weaving helps combat boredom. Breaking it up a little bit can help you keep your focus and get more out of your time.
Hopefully, this document has been of some help in getting you started on mail. Good luck, and have fun!