Facts and Myths about Armour Patterns
by Eric Slyter
Patterns are often regarded as the key to building armour. Many times people request patterns for this helmet or that gauntlet, or even a mail shirt, but what can the pattern really tell a person about how to build armour? This article will hopefully shed some light on the answer.
Plate and Leather Armour
In a basic sense, an armour pattern for plate armour or leather is the result of trying to visualize a 3 dimensional shape on a flat piece of paper. The pattern, usually drawn on a surface such as posterboard, is cut out and shaped into its intended structure when possible (not always so with deep shapes) and if it is close, it is then traced onto the given material and cut out for shaping. The actual process of shaping the steel reveals whether the pattern is accurate or not. If not, corrections are made to the pattern and the armourer tries again.
Many people want to just use someone else's pattern rather than developing their own. Instead of having to think about how the 3-dimensional shape would appear on paper, the information is simply applied. There is nothing actually wrong with using a borrowed pattern, particularly for a beginner who has not yet begun to learn what metal does when it is shaped by hammer- but it must be understood that the pattern is only part of the answer. Without the knowledge of how to use a pattern, the pattern itself is useless. The fact is that having a pattern is no guarantee that you'll be able to build the armour.
Other people's patterns should be viewed only as a starting point, not an answer, and as you start developing your skills you should rely less and less on using patterns developed by other people. After you've spent some time shaping steel, you will better understand how the material behaves and resultingly, how and why that flat shape works in 3-dimensions. From there, adapting patterns for your own use becomes a great deal easier. I say "adapting" because I have learned that each individual, and the tools at their disposal, will work a given pattern differently, and to get the desired shape (which also may change as a result of individual taste) a pattern will usually need modifying after one sees the results they get from it. The shape of the hammer's face and the depth of the dish the steel is shaped in, as well as the force it is done with, and other tools of a given armourer are just a few examples of the many variables that cannot be accounted for by anyone but the person doing it at the time.
While a photocopy machine can make a pattern larger and smaller as needed, it does not affect proportions. If you take, for example, a spaulder pattern proportioned for someone who is 6' 4" with an 18" bicep and try to use a copy machine to make it fit someone 5' 9" with a 18" bicep, the proportions will not be correct. Most of the time you will not have the first clue as to what proportion a pattern is actually made to when getting it off the internet, so some hand work will be involved in the conversion. Often times, there might be a flaw inherent in the pattern that only the original maker knew to account for. Subsequent users of the pattern will likely have no knowledge of such problems, and will inevitably run into difficulties trying to use it. You will definitely want to work out the "bugs" in a borrowed pattern before using your good, expensive materials. Thats why it is crucial that you build an example out of posterboard before attempting it in your steel or leather.
At some point, after all the preparation, you will need to just jump in and set hammer to steel. There is no substitute for this experience, as you will learn something new every time you do so. Trial and error may be time consuming, but they are excellent teachers- and nothing, when it comes to armouring, should be done hurriedly. Certainly, one wants to do as little as necessary (ie spend the least amount of time and money) to build what they want, but shortcuts will show up in the final product. One needs to have a solid grounding in the basics to make any efficient, sensible use of a pattern, and these basics take time to develop. It is well worth it though, as your skill will grow in leaps and bounds if you apply yourself in a dedicated rather than hurried manner. (see also: Building Spaulders- An exercise in basic hammerwork, finishing, and assembly)
From there, it is a short leap to developing patterns of your own. By building your own patterns, you become intimately familiar with every step of the process and you know exactly why a particular shape needs to be the way it is- and how to shape it. You needn't be limited by the availability of other peoples' patterns. Being able to form your own is a creative, liberating experience and the skill of doing so will set you apart from others.
A pattern for mail armour is something of a misnomer, excepting the actual configuration of ring-to-ring connection (ie, 4-in-1 etc.). There are seams and tailoring techniques to learn, but aside from that, the idea of a "pattern" for an item made one ring at a time rather than cut from a sheet of something (like steel, leather or fabric) is misleading.
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 maille 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 as with plate and leather armour, experience makes it much easier. (see also: Beginner's Guide to Mail)
The Bottom Line
To learn, you must simply do it. Patterns and advice mean little unless you've developed the skills to apply them, and to do that you must practice and apply yourself to the craft.