Collared mail half-shirt, sometimes referred to as a partlet, designed to be worn underneath armour to protect gaps in protection. © Lonnie Colson 2020.
Among practitioners of historical reenactment, there seems to be a never-ending experimentation involved with wearing maille under armour. The wearer's tastes evolve; their style of armour changes; the rules governing simulated combat are updated; issues such as comfort or weight become more important with age and experience. Perhaps it is entirely a modern phenomenon, as the majority of the aforementioned are somewhat trivial, while self-preservation on the battlefield was likely the most important consideration of the medieval man-at-arms. Of course, one cannot discount the vanity of the knightly class. For instance, when Sir John Howard, duke of Norfolk, outfitted dozens of men in 1468 to accompany an army under Lord Scales, he paid almost £12 for a complete harness for his son, Nicholas Howard, which specifically included "an estriche fether."
Take for instance the brass edging found on the hems of many extant examples of maille garments. Brass does not corrode like ferrous metal, which quickly begins to oxidize when it comes in contact with sweat from the wearer's skin. It was discovered that by adding a few rows of brass rings to the top of maille standards (collars), or the lower edges of skirts, or the hems of sleeves, etc., the garments were less likely to develop rust in those locations. Of course, it did not take long before it was commercialized as "bling." Whether it was a wide band or a saw-tooth "dagged" edge, a development in armour meant to deter rust evolved into a stylistic choice. For all these reasons, learning the art of maille-making is a vital component to this lifelong journey.
Maille Partlet with Decorative Brass Trim
By the middle of 15th century, plates made of high carbon steel could be articulated to cover practically every part of the body. The only vulnerable areas that remained were the armpits, inner elbows, backs of knees, and groin. Rather than simply leaving them unprotected, maille was employed to fill in the gaps. The development of armour has always been based upon a sliding scale of increased protection versus reduced mobility. A third, overarching consideration was weight. Across numerous centuries during the Middle Ages, approximately 25 kg (55 lbs) remained the upper limit for battlefield kit.
The maille garment pictured at the top of the page is a collared, short-sleeved shirt that has been cut away in the front and back to reduce weight. It is sometimes referred to today as a partlet or pisanello, a term coined from the name of the artist of an illustration depicting a wounded knight being carried by two assistants (below, second image). The collared partlet is considerably lighter than a full hauberk (short-sleeved maille shirt) and separate standard. It is also easier to don without assistance, an important consideration in the modern era where few jousters have enough disposable income to cover their servants' wages.
The partlet was originally purchased in 2019 from eBay. Described by the Indian seller as "half body chainmail," the product was over-sized and poorly constructed. The neck was lozenge-shaped and had to be completely removed, rebuilt and re-connected. Several gussets were added and the sleeves were tailored to fit more closely to the arms. Domed brass rivets were ground flat and hand-filed to attach the hinge clasp in the front that was obtain from Tom Biliter of Historically Patterned Mail. Finally, two rows of brass rings were added along the neck and a dagged pattern was applied to the hems of the sleeves.
A skirt of maille was the most common choice for protecting the loins. In order to maximize mobility and minimize the weight, the skirt should not simply be an over-sized tube bunched at the top to fit the waist. Instead, the top edge needs to be just long enough to fit tightly around the waist. In the skirt pictured below, several inverted V-shaped expansions, or gores, were added to increase the diameter of the lower hem and thereby allow more freedom of movement (below, images 2 through 5). Although regional styles differences in armour may have an effect on the way the skirt is closed, this one has been suspended from a leather belt and had its closure positioned under the left tasset. In the coming months a dagged edge will be applied to match the rest of the maille.
The sallet was by far the most popular helmet in practically every region during the 15th century due to its mobility and versatility. Its use is widely depicted in contemporary artwork, documented in household inventories and expenses, and plainly stated in extant documents. The grand bascinet was the polar opposite of the sallet, offering the maximum level of protection while giving up a great deal of mobility; however, as the 15th century progressed, its usage was increasingly relegated to tournaments. In the Italian city-states and somewhat in England, there was a middle option: the armet. The armet offered a bit more protection than a sallet--especially when the wrapper was employed to add an additional layer of steel to the neck and face--while only sacrificing a small amount of mobility.
The armet was a close-fitting helmet. The gap between the top of the breastplate and the lower edge of the armet was often protected by a short curtain of maille, often classified today as an aventail. The maille was commonly stitched to leathers secured to the base of the helmet by a metal band. The aventail would not lay flat before several inverted V-shaped expansion rows were added (see below, second and third images). Finally, a decorative brass dagged edge was applied to match the rest of the maille (below, fourth and fifth images).
Everyone who has worn reproduction armour in the modern era knows the vital importance of keeping their arming points in good condition. When armour is worn in conjunction with small-diameter maille, that chore becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. One "life hack" solution that is not supported by any historical evidence is to insert rings of a larger diameter. The image below shows a number of 10mm inner diameter rings inserted into a sleeve of 6mm rings. The arming points can be easily laced through the larger holes, which are almost indistinguishable from the smaller rings when added in alternating rows.
All extant examples of maille garments have maker's marks, often in the form of stamped rings inserted into the weave or small brass tags riveted onto one or more rings. If an amateur maille-maker wishes to add his or her own maker's mark to their handiwork, the following is a relatively cheap option as opposed to investing several hundred dollars for a custom-made stamp. Purchase loose brass washers from your local hardware store in a similar diameter to the maille rings. Amazon has 1mm high carbon steel hand punch sets, which will allow one to stamp their name or other mark onto the brass ring. See below for an example.