Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fitted Mail

In recent years a number of merchants have outsourced the tedious manual labor of building riveted mail to India, where wages are low, and can now offer hauberks, aventails and other mail components at prices that are quite reasonable considering the amount of handwork involved. However, the products offered to date do have significant drawbacks for customers that want a truly accurate reproduction of medieval armor.

The greatest flaw is oversimplified tailoring. Currently, off the rack hauberks are generally simple “T” shapes, with straight tubes of mail for the body and the arms. Historic Enterprises offers a superior product by these standards, with expansion providing a flair to the hem that allows a tighter fitting chest without restricting leg movement. 14th and 15th c. hauberks and habergeons, however, were considerably more sophisticated in fit, generally woven with a distinct waist. Arms were often carefully tailored to closely follow the shape of the arms and shoulders, allowing them to be worn beneath armharness without excessive bunching or constriction. Looser and shorter mail sleeves designed to be worn over plate armharness, as on the Historic Enterprises habergeon, was one period approach. However, it wasn’t necessarily the most common design, nor is it appropriate to all portrayals.

A more tailored mail garment is lighter, moves better, distributes its weight better, and interferes less with plate harness worn over it. It’s also more like actual armor of the 14th and 15th century.

While the amount of datable mail from earlier periods is limited, it’s questionable how accurate simple “T” shaped hauberks are even for earlier periods. The Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250, for example, seems to show mail sleeves that are neatly tailored to provide a snug fit over the entire arm and protect the hand with a well fitted integral mail mitten.

If you are a scrupulous reenactor you have the option of buying one of these hauberks or other mail pieces, and either paying a skilled armorer to tailor it properly, or tailoring it yourself. I took the first option, paying Robert MacPherson to fashion a purchased hauberk into a fitted habergeon, and even though the alterations cost more than the purchase price of the hauberk I believe I got a good value. Paying a craftsman to make a fitted habergeon from scratch would have cost even more.

The current state of affairs offers an opportunity to the enterprising mail merchant. Given a proper exemplar to work from, I believe that Indian craftsmen can make an acceptable copy of a habergeon that’s much more like the 14th and 15th c. originals. Properly shaped habergeons in small, medium, large and extra large would be enough to offer a most customers a much more authentic product than is available off the rack at present, and the premium for a more authentic product would quickly repay the initial investment.

In the meantime, those seeking accurate reproductions of mail garments from that period should expect to make a significant investment in post purchase alterations of the simplified off the rack mail now on the market, either in their own time or in payments to an armorer. You can improve your choices by telling your favorite merchant that you’d pay more for a product that's more like the medieval original.

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